Rao buckles under pressure from all sides: The sacking of three MPs could seal the Prime Minister's fate, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi

THE LATEST jokes about India's Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, all needle away at his indecisiveness. If the Prime Minister calls at your house, goes one joke, don't ask him whether he wants tea or coffee. He'll spend hours trying to decide.

At last, though, Mr Rao has made up his mind. Or, rather, he has allowed others to choose for him. Buckling under pressure from hardliners within his own ruling Congress party and from the left-wing parties outside, he dismissed the three remaining state governments controlled by the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Hindu fundamentalists. This decision is one that Mr Rao may rue: it may speed his downfall as prime minister and it will certainly plunge India into new elections, probably in early spring.

The fate of Mr Rao was sealed yesterday afternoon when Atai Vajpayee, one of the BJP's three leaders, delivered a note to India's President protesting at the dismissal of the elected BJP governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Mr Vajpayee is the sole member of the BJP triumvirate not in jail (his two companions, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Joshi, are in Agra prison, complaining about tattered mosquito nets and curries of mouldy cauliflower). Mr Vajpayee also urged the President to dismiss the Indian parliament and hold immediate elections to get rid of 'the irresponsible government in New Delhi'.

It is not within the President's limited ceremonial powers to dismiss parliament. But Mr Vajpayee's note was a declaration of war against Mr Rao's Congress government.

A BJP senior official, K R Malkani, warned that Hindu revivalists across the country would begin a wave of strikes and demonstrations to bring down Mr Rao. 'We'll create a situation in which the government can't function,' he said. The opening salvo came yesterday in parliament when BJP MPs stampeded on to the floor, in a blur of Hindu saffron colour, and shouted until the Speaker was forced to adjourn.

The Hindu party MPs are demanding the release of Mr Advani and Dr Joshi, who were arrested for allegedly inciting Hindu extremists to tear down the Ayodhya mosque on 6 December. Despite the mosquitoes and poor prison fare, the two BJP leaders are refusing to post bail and leave.

Within the Congress party, there are some pretenders trying to topple Mr Rao. Chief among them is Arjun Singh, a brash feudal landlord from Madhya Pradesh, who accuses Mr Rao of bungling the Ayodhya incident - by idling while the Ayodhya mosque crumbled and Muslims and Hindus fought around India.

Even before the mosque's destruction, Mr Singh had warned the Prime Minister not to mix with the BJP, the leading opposition party. Now that he has been proved right, Mr Singh is trying to sell himself to the Congress party and to India's 120 million Muslims as the only man capable of defending secular democracy against Hindu zealotry.

If elections are held soon, the Hindu fundamentalists might just win. The shame and revulsion expressed by the educated elite and the intelligentsia after the destruction of the Muslim shrine never sank down to the highly religious, illiterate masses, who believe that the Ayodhya mosque concealed the birthplace of the god Ram.

The BJP's leaders were vilified, at first, for having uncorked the genie of religious fanaticism and for failing to coax it back into the bottle. But this was soon overshadowed by Mr Rao, who did too much, too late. Immediately after Ayodhya, he arrested Mr Advani, the parliamentary opposition leader. Then Mr Rao banned religious extremist groups and rounded up more than 2,000 Muslim and Hindu militants. Then came Tuesday's dismissal of the BJP state governments.

The Prime Minister's excuses for doing this were thin. Fewer people died in the BJP states than in those run by Congress. The chief ministers in Mahdya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh obeyed Delhi's ban on extremist groups, even though all three were reportedly members of a Hindu militant organisation.