THIS is the 24th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition but the only flutter is that of pamphlets that litter a small stretch of road between Faizabad and Ayodhya — green, pink, yellow and blue, scattered between the Saket Degree College gate and photocopy shops on the other side.
Three students with yellow pamphlets approach a group of their college-mates waiting for copies of a textbook. “The ABVP has always done well for Saket College. We are raising issues of…,” says one of the three, then stops.
His audience has drifted away into the shop. Inside, one of them says, “Who cares about this election? Last year, all the student parties were lining up to photocopy textbooks I needed for free. I must have saved at least Rs 300. This time, they claim they have no money. They can print these pamphlets to throw around but not photocopy a textbook for Rs 65?”
The cash crunch in Ayodhya’s banks have hit the 2016 student elections hard.
“We knew it would be a problem when demonetisation was announced, but we expected things to settle by the end of the month. Half our unit is waiting outside banks, trying to withdraw money,” says a BSP student leader.
The December 8 college elections are important, as a morale-booster before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections early next year. And, with the Ayodhya seat as the prize, every bit helps.
Under the BJP for five consecutive terms starting 1991, the SP wrested the seat in 2012 and its winning MLA Tej Narayan Pandey was even made a minister in the Akhilesh government. The BJP came back by winning the Lok Sabha constituency in 2014.
This Assembly seat is a matter of pride for all parties in UP, especially with the Centre’s demonetisation gambit queering the pitch. The local economy stagnant for close to a decade, Ayodhya town has a few banks in and fewer ATMs, paling in comparison to Vrindavan.
“Demonetisation is a bold move, but it seems poorly implemented. It’s the poor who has been hit the most,” says Raju Das, a priest at Hanumangarhi Temple in Ayodhya and an ABVP leader. Also active in the Bajrang Dal, Das says the move could potentially affect the elections. “People in Ayodhya, particularly the Brahmins, are already frustrated with the lack of development and now there are rumours of Income-Tax notices. It’s a wrong signal,” he adds.
But in the neighbouring town of Faizabad, which falls in Ayodhya constituency, this “signal” is welcome news. Says Hridayram, a rickshaw-puller: “Look at Faziabad, nothing has changed. All politicians talk about is Ayodhya, all the tourists go to Ayodhya. All the money goes there… into the temples, nothing comes here. As a Dalit, I only had Mayawati to vote for, now it seems there is another option,” he says.
There is a ‘but’ though.
“These are strange times. There is work to do, but nobody has money to pay. The BJP has declared war on black money, which is admirable, but I cannot survive without my daily wages. If things get better soon, everything will change. But things must get better soon,” says Preetam, a daily wage labourer at Faizabad railway station.
Back in Ayodhya, Satyendra Das, head priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, tells a different story. “People believe Ayodhya’s temples are brimming with money and that this demonetisation has hit us. This is rubbish,” he says.
Donations at this temple has doubled since November 8, he says, but there is context. “Our donations went up from around Rs 1.5 lakh to about Rs 3 lakh. What is that compared to other temples like Banke Bihari in Vrindavan or Vaishno Devi? Only the poor and villagers from in and around this region come to the Ram Janmabhoomi temple. Also, the odd VIP from Delhi or Mumbai who wants to see what it’s all about,” he adds.
Every year, the Ram Janmabhoomi temple gets about Rs 15 lakh in donations. The Banke Bihari temple alone in Vrindavan deposited Rs 1.2 crore after opening half its donation boxes two weeks ago.
Another priest has a word of warning for the BJP. “We have been loyal supporters of the BJP since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and now is the time for them to act and do something about the temple. For too long, Ayodhya has played second fiddle to other religious towns, and our vote cannot be taken for granted,” he says.
In this already frayed mix, the BSP has attempted the unique.
For the 2017 elections, BSP chief Mayawati has given the party ticket to a Muslim, Bazmi Siddique — the first ever by a mainstream political party in Ayodhya.
According to Siddique, demonetisation has “ended the BJP’s poll campaign”.
“Most people are scared to talk to anybody and will say anything. I am a local and have been in politics for a while now. My office is filled with people begging me to speak to banks and get money somehow. I tell them I can do nothing since it’s a central government policy,” he says.
“For now, it seems that one class in India gets some kind of sadistic pleasure with this demonetisation but it is a canard the BJP has spread. The situation will not improve for at least two months and they will see the truth then. When they talk about controlling black money, I say one thing — look at the footwear of people standing in line. You will know who has black money and who does not,” he adds.