Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya. Image: Facebook

MUMBAI – Covid-19 fears in India are slashing the number of national and state leaders set to attend Wednesday’s (August 5) anticipated ground-breaking ceremony for a Hindu temple on a hotly disputed site in Uttar Pradesh.

The virus has disrupted but not derailed the ground-breaking ceremony for the temple of Lord Ram in the ancient town of Ayodhya, a long-cherished aspiration of many Hindus. If completed as planned, the temple will be the third biggest Hindu shrine worldwide, according to reports.

At the same time, the site is revered by Muslims who still bitterly resent the 1992 destruction by Hindu mobs of a mosque, known as Babri Masjid, that was previously situated there.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power on a Hindu nationalist ticket, will symbolically initiate the new temple’s construction with a silver brick weighing 22 kilograms donated by devotees.

The ceremony was initially to be attended by more than 200-250 people, mostly leaders from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allied Hindu organizations. The who’s who guest list initially included L.K. Advani, who led the BJP from a two-member presence in the lower house of parliament in 1984 to 161 in 1996.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays a two-minute silence tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in a clash between India and China during a virtual conference with state chief ministers in New Delhi, June 17, 2020. Photo: Handout / AFP / PIB

Advani also led the Ram Rath Yatra (procession on a chariot) across the country to drum up support for building a temple on a site believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram, a widely worshipped Hindu deity. Modi was then part of Advani’s entourage.

But despite being the central figure, Advani will miss out the event, as will another former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi. The rapid spread of Covid-19 is proving to be a deterrent for political leaders, especially the aged who are most vulnerable to the disease. Advani is 92 and Joshi 86.

Last week at the temple town of Ayodhya, a senior priest and 14 policemen associated with the ceremony tested positive for the virus, prompting many invited guests to cancel plans to attend. On Sunday, Kamla Rani Varun a minister in Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is situated, succumbed to a two-week Covid-19 illness.

The number of cases in Uttar Pradesh has been rising, partly because of a rush of workers who have migrated back from large industrial towns such as Mumbai and Bangalore and spread the virus in their home villages. Uttar Pradesh BJP State President Swatantra Dev Singh and state Water Resources Minister Mahendra Singh have also tested positive and are now in isolation.

ndia’s Home Minister Amit Shah gestures as he arrives at the Parliament House in New Delhi, February 2020. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

Others in proximity to India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, who tested positive on Sunday, have been tested or sent home for quarantine. Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and junior minister Babul Supriyo are also in isolation in New Delhi.

Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Y S Yediyurappa have also tested positive, as has Tamil Nadu Governor Banwari Lal Purohit.

He, along with Shah, Chouhan, Yediyurappa and earlier the Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain, have attracted criticism for checking into expensive private clinics rather than government-run hospitals.

States which have reported a recent surge in cases include Andhra Pradesh, which now has 152,000 reported case after having one-tenth that amount at the beginning of July, and Karnataka where the number of cases has risen similarly to more than 132,000.  Maharashtra leads the Covid count with about 426,000 cases.

On Sunday India added another 52,783 cases, the highest recorded by any country including the United States and Brazil, according to data compiled by Worldometer. India’s total number of cases has surged past 1.8 million, trailing only the US with 4.8 million and Brazil with 2.73 million.

However, some see a potential silver lining. On a national level, Delhi and Mumbai have started to control the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the national fatality rate has declined to 2.11% from 2.21% last week. And the number of tests crossed 20 million, the fourth highest globally, with India now testing more than half a million a day.

But those Covid-19 upsides won’t like bring the crowds to Ayodhya that Modi and his BJP supporters had previously envisioned.