In the Ayodhya market near the disputed Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site, Kailash Singh Das, sporting saffron clothes and a tika on his forehead, is busy dusting religious books, like the Bhagwad Gita, on display in his store. Across the road, Atiq Ahmed is also waiting for customers at his shop of itr and perfumes, hoping they might start arriving as the sun goes down and the heat reduces.
Das is in his early 70s, Ahmed younger by nearly 20 years. When it comes to the dispute that remains a tinderbox 27 years later, they are on different sides. However, both are agreed that Ram temple is not the focus when it comes to this election.
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Requesting that the temple remain an issue of just faith, voters here say they want development, jobs, and better education and health facilities. Some note that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s only rally in the area was held 25 km away from the makeshift temple area, and that he didn’t pay a visit to the site.
As Faizabad, under which Ayodhya falls, votes on May 6, the fight here seems to be largely between Modi’s name and the gathbandhan of the Samajwadi Party and BSP. While the BJP has re-fielded Lallu Singh, from the alliance side the ticket has gone to former MLA Anand Sen Yadav, who is counting on the image of his father and three-time MP from the seat Mitrasen Yadav.
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However, Anand Sen’s criminal background is causing some voters from the minority community to consider the Congress’s Nirmal Khatri, who has a clean image. Like Anand Sen, the other two are known names. While Khatri is a former Faizabad MP (he won in 2009), as well as an ex-Congress state president, Lallu Singh is the sitting MP and has been an MLA from Ayodhya several times.
Most agree that under the BJP government, ghats have been developed, underground electricity cables laid, and sewage works undertaken. But others, like Ahmed, say development has been limited to Ayodhya town, with the rest of the Faizabad constituency in a bad state. However, he is hesitant when expressing his choice, only saying Khatri is a “good man”, “who listens to everyone”.
Change of course
As the BJP faces the challenge of repeating its 2014 performance in UP, it seems to be changing its strategy based on local sentiments. It may be for this reason that party president Amit Shah, who had earlier been talking about the construction of Ram temple, has put the topic on the back seat.
Das too acknowledges the small steps taken, but points out that “better education and jobs” are still to come. “Mandir kaun nahin chahta? Ram ki nagari mein kaun nahi chahta ki Ram mil jayen? Par vote vikas ka hai, siksha ka hai, vote uska hai jo humara kaam kara sake (Who doesn’t want a temple? Who doesn’t want that in Ram’s birthplace, one finds Ram? But vote is for development, education, someone who can get our work done),” he says.
About 20 km away, in the city that was earlier called Faizabad and has been renamed Ayodhya by the state BJP government, Ram Das Yadav, who sells chai and pakodas, almost echoes him. “Who will vote in the name of temple? What did they do for five years?” he says, adding, “We are among the faithful too, but tell me, why didn’t Modi visit Ram Lulla?”
Regretting that “development” remains restricted to the disputed area, Ram Das says, “Hum to pakode hi talte reh gaye (We are still frying pakodas).”
The discussion at his tea stall, where around five people are gathered, soon veers around to the surgical strikes. Jameel Kureshi, a labourer, points out that the Indian side lost jawans too, and adds, “There was an attack from the other side, the government responded. Others would have done the same.” According to Kureshi, the fight is between the BJP and gathbandhan.
Faizabad has been represented by several parties over the years. Mitrasen won from here in 1989, 1998 and 2004 as CPI, SP and BSP candidate, respectively, while VHP leader Vinay Katiyar represented the seat thrice in the 1990s.
In 2014, Lallu Singh got 4.91 lakh votes, more than double of then-SP candidate Mitrasen’s tally. The third placed was the BSP’s Jitendra Kumar Singh (1.41 lakh votes) while Khatri finished fourth with about 1.29 lakh votes. With the Modi wave absent, the gathbandhan is hoping that the SP-BSP’s combined votes would overtake Lallu Singh.
Meanwhile, at Saryu Ghat in Ayodhya, election dominates discussions amid preparations for the evening aarti. Like other BJP supporters, Raghunath Prasad Pandey, a retired Sanskrit School teacher, underlines that this is an election for the country’s PM. “The Army’s morale has got a boost (under the BJP),” he says. “The surgical strikes have left Ram Mandir behind.”
But looking on at a newly constructed ghat, an under-construction sewage pump, and the silt accumulated on the water, shopkeeper R P Pathak, voices the undercurrent in Ayodhya: “Work should continue. That is what matters.”