AYODHYA/FAIZABAD: The eyes of Sripriya, 50, suddenly glitter with excitement when she is told by Ved Prakash, a vendor at the bookstall near Mandir Nirman Karyashala, that she can get ‘Ram Mandir ka Sampoorna Itihas,’ the booklet she was flipping through, in Telugu also.
Sripriya, part of a group of pilgrims from Vijayawada, buys the book and turns towards the workshop housing stones, some raw and some chiselled with exquisite patterns, for the construction of the much-awaited Ram temple. The workshop, which is a prominent part of the visitors’ Ayodhya itinerary, evokes curiosity among them as it also has a model of the proposed grand Ram temple.
Even as the sculptors from Gujarat and Rajasthan are busy carving out motifs on huge ‘shilas’, undeterred by the soaring summer heat, the temple issue seems to have been drowned out in the poll cacophony in the land of Lord Ram.
Overpowered by the narrative of nationalism and caste arithmetic, the issue that catapulted the BJP to the pole position in Indian politics in the 90s is now discussed only when it's raked up by a scribe from outside in the town, which is going to the polls on May 6.
Have the VHP and RSS, who have been demanding an ordinance on the temple issue after the Supreme Court refused to take up the case on priority, been swayed by Modi’s discourse on nationalism? “No, it’s not so. Temple can never be on the back burner for us. Since the Supreme Court has set up a panel for mediation and the process is on, it’s better to have a little patience. Moreover, Modiji is busy securing and building the nation. It is equally important. If the nation is secured, only then other issues will be addressed. Temple can wait for a while,” says Sharad Sharma, regional spokesman of the VHP.
On the other hand, pained by Modi giving the makeshift temple a miss during his visit to Ayodhya for a rally on May 1, former BJP MP and Babri demolition accused Ram Vilas Vedanti feels that if at all any government could build a temple, it will be the BJP. “Modi is going to be the PM again. Among all other political players, it is only the BJP and Modi who will facilitate temple construction in Ayodhya. People of Ayodhya will bat for a second term for him,” he says.
Not only Vedanti, but also other saints and seers, including Nritya Gopal Das of Ramjanma Bhoomi Nyas, Dharam Das of Nirmohi Akhada and Satyendra Das, the head priest of the makeshift temple, all believe that PM should have had ‘darshan’ at the makeshift temple.
“He goes to every temple. Then why did he miss Ram Lala’s janmabhoomi,” wonders a seemingly miffed Vedanti but swears to be with the BJP all his life.
Iqbal Ansari, one of the litigants from the Muslim side in the Ayodhya title suit, feels the Modi government has followed the motto of ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ for the last five years. “The Congress has betrayed Muslims for 60-70 years. Even the shrine was unlocked during the Congress regime and the mosque was also demolished when the Congress was at the Centre,” says Ansari.
“Modi might not have visited the temple because it would have sent a wrong message among Muslims,” says Ansari.
His claim, however, is rejected by another litigant Haji Mehboob who feels that it was Kalyan Singh’s government which facilitated the demolition. “Kalyan Singh did not honour the affidavit he had submitted before the Supreme Court to safeguard the structure,” says Mehboob.
Meanwhile, locals feel that only PM Modi can take effective measures to facilitate a temple in Ayodhya. “He is the only leader who has the grit to build a temple. If he can allow the defence forces to finish terror camps deep inside Pakistan, he can bring a temple on the ground in Ayodhya as well. He will be voted back for a second term,” says Ajay Arya, a grocery shop owner in Amaniganj area of the temple town.
However, other issues like development and unemployment have equal traction, besides the caste factor on which the SP-BSP alliance is relying heavily. Anurag Vaishya, a member of Spic Macay, feels that the coming government should focus on the development of Ayodhya, which is being projected as a major destination for religious tourism.
“Though the proposed airport in Ayodhya will increase its connectivity with the world, industry, especially hospitality, institutions of higher education and other avenues should also be developed in Faizabad parliamentary constituency to improve the employment scenario for youth here,” says Anurag, associated with Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi who works against child labour.
Trader Giridhar Agarwal denies that demonetisation or GST had any adverse impact on businessmen. “Even a new pair of shoes pinches initially. With time, it gets fixed on its own. Initially, there were some glitches as people were learning the nuances of GST, but now everything is streamlined and for honest traders, it’s a better option,” says Agarwal, sitting in his footwear showroom in Chowk area of the temple town.
Refusing to divulge his choice, Ramesh Kumar, who supplies flowers to temples – over 4000 of them in the city -- believes that whoever is elected should pay attention to the restoration of dilapidated temples, the heritage of Ayodhya. He is backed by many others who are standing at his shop.
The temple town is part of Faizabad Lok Sabha constituency. The district of Faizabad has ceased to exist, after being renamed as Ayodhya by the Yogi Adityanath government. With five assembly constituencies of Rudauli, Milkipur, Dariyabad, Bikapur and Ayodhya, the seat has not been a BJP bastion, though in the 90s, it elected firebrand saffron leader Vinay Katiyar thrice in the wake of the Ram Temple movement.
The present MP is BJP’s Lallu Singh, kar sewak during the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, who has won the Ayodhya Vidhan Sabha seat five times in the past. He has been fielded against SP’s Anand Sen – son of Mitra Sen Yadav, former Faizabad MP, and Congress’s Nirmal Khatri, who has also won the seat twice, the first time as early as 1984.
Although Anand Sen has the support of the Yadavs and Muslims of Faizabad, and also the goodwill of his father, who became an MP on a CPI ticket for the first time in 1989, an old rape and murder case in which Sen was an accused keeps haunting him.
As one moves towards the famous Guptar Ghat along the banks of Saryu, around 50 labourers are busy restoring the place where Lord Ram is believed to have met his end by taking Jal Samadhi (watery grave).
“People know Ayodhya only for being the birthplace of Lord Rama. Very few are aware that Ayodhya is also the place where he met his end. Guptar Ghat is that place. No earlier government paid attention to its maintenance and beautification. Only the Yogi government is working on it,” says Anshul Tiwari, 28, a Faizabad university graduate, who runs a dhaba at Guptar Ghat.
“Yahan log Modiji ko hi vote karenge sivay unke jo jaati adhar par vote karte hain. Modi rashtra ka nirman kar rahe hain. Jo rashtra premi hai woh kahin aur vote nahi karega. (Here people will vote for Modi as he is busy in nation building except those who vote on caste lines. Those who love the country will vote for him),” says Ravindra Singh, who also owns a food joint at Guptar Ghat.
Ravindra is contradicted by Arshad, who has come to visit Guptar Ghat with his family. “Those who don’t vote for the BJP are also ‘desh bhakts.’ During the Modi regime, the communal divide has increased,” feels Arshad, saying the gathbandhan has brighter prospects.
As one moves towards Faizabad city, other voices start emanating from the ground. “Where are the jobs? After completing our education from Faizabad university, if we have to look for a job, we are bound to leave our city owing to dearth of avenues. Nothing has been done in this direction during the last five years,” says Santosh Yadav, who works in Noida and has come to vote for the gathbandhan, although he and many more gathbandhan supporters sounded unhappy with the criminal credentials of the candidate.
If the Modi factor seems to have a little edge on the ground in Ayodhya and Faizabad, the gathbandhan appears to be supported by the caste calculus. Yadavs constitute around 13% of the total voters - almost half of the total OBC voters in the constituency.
Muslims constitute around 15% and dalit voters are around 4%. Upper caste Hindu voters are around 29%. To counter the gathbandhan equation, BJP will eye the upper caste votes and also a chunk of the remaining around 13 per cent of other castes – non-Yadav OBCs and around 10% of the most backward caste voters.
The Congress, however, hopes that caste calculations will fail in front of its candidate’s image and the party’s commitment to the NYAY scheme. “We don’t seek votes along caste lines. In 2009, people voted for Congress candidate Nirmal Khatri for the good work of the UPA government. This time again they will vote for the Congress to end the Modi government’s misrule,” says Ved Singh ‘Kamal,’ general secretary, district Congress committee.
However, when asked how much traction NYAY has on the ground, Pratyush Pandey rejects it as another gimmick in the poll season. “Where was the Congress for the last seven decades? Why are they worried about the poor now,” he asks while opening his cloth shop in Faizabad. “Modi’s welfare schemes can be seen on the ground. Congress candidate is always elusive. He is inaccessible. Why will anyone vote for him,” asks Pandey.
While leaving Faizabad as the sun sets, one can find farmers in fields along NH 28 cutting and collecting wheat crop. They claim that politicians remember them only when elections are around. “BJP walon ne vikas kiya. Gas, awas, shauchalaya diya. Pradhan mantri ne 2000 khate mein dale hain (BJP has done development. We have got gas connection, house, toilet. PM has transferred Rs 2000 into account) ,” says Ramadin, 50, of Baraspur village.
Asked if stray animals are destroying crops, the villagers of Baraspur say the problem is not as big in
Faizabad-Ayodhya as it is in other eastern districts because there are a number of cow shelters in the twin cities.