Radheshyam Sonkar owns a tea stall outside one of Ayodhya’s most prominent landmarks, the Birla Dharmashala. He is a Bharatiya Janata Party voter but is galled at Chief Minister Adityanath’s plans to build a giant statue of the Hindu god Ram in this Uttar Pradesh temple town. “Statue and celebrating Diwali is fine,” said Sonkar, scowling. “But these are distractions. The main issue is the Ram temple. That is what we want.”

In 2017, after the BJP’s unexpected landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the party leadership pulled out another surprise by appointing Adityanath to helm the state. Known for his hardline Hindutva, Adityanath took office with charges as grave as murder, criminal intimidation and rioting against him. His public statements included open threats of communal violence, comparing Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed, and a demand to rename the 17th century Taj Mahal to Ram Mahal.

Adityanath’s appointment seemed to indicate that the BJP was ready to push an uncompromising Hindutva agenda. As the 2019 Lok Sabha elections approach, Adityanath’s pitch has only got shriller with specific focus on a narrative that revolves around Ram. In 2017, his government organised a grand celebration of Diwali in Ayodhya. The event saw Adityanath bow to an actor playing Ram, who arrived by helicopter to mark the god’s return to Ayodhya on Diwali. A year later, at the Diwali celebrations in November, more than three lakh clay oil lamps were set alight on the banks of the Sarayu river, which created a new Guinness World Record. At this celebration, Adityanath announced that Faizabad district – in which the twin towns of Ayodhya-Faizabad are located – would be renamed Ayodhya. He also said that Ayodhya town would get a new airport named after Ram, and a medical college named after Ram’s father Dashrath. The state government also said that it was considering a ban on meat and alcohol in the entire district. Later that month, Adityanath announced that Uttar Pradesh would construct a 221-metre tall statue of Ram, which would make it the tallest statue in the world, beating the Statue of Unity that was unveiled in Gujarat in October.

The BJP party office in Faizabad with the word "Faziabad" concealed with red paint. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

The symbolism of Ram has a special place within Hindutva politics given that it was the mass mobilisation for a Ram janmabhoomi temple in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya that catapulted the ideology to national prominence. Twenty-six years after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, however, the BJP’s attempts to use the issue of the Ram temple for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is seeing a lukewarm response in the epicentre of Ayodhya itself. The town’s residents are either more concerned about bread and butter issues or annoyed with the saffron party for cynically using the issue of the temple for electoral gain while doing little to actually build it, in spite of being in power both in Delhi as well as Lucknow.

Where is the temple?

Babloo Srivastav came down to Ayodhya from Uttarakhand for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s November 25 dharma sabha (religious congregation) and stayed back for a few days, living with a group of sadhus on the banks of the Saryu. “What will we get by renaming Faizabad or with a statue?” asked Srivastav agitatedly. “Where is the Ram temple? Yogi wears saffron [referring to the UP chief minister who is a Hindu monk] but does not do enough for the Ram temple.”

Giridharilal Sharma runs a barbershop at the busy Tehri bazar crossing in Ayodhya and is a staunch BJP supporter. “The name Faizabad was an insult,” said Sharma. “Why should Bhagwan Ram’s birthplace have a Muslim name?” However, even Sharma’s patience is running out with what he sees as the lack of progress in building the Ram temple. “I will support the BJP now but if even after this election they do not build the temple, they will lose heavily,” warned Sharma. Sharma claims he has heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will kick off temple construction on December 11, echoing speakers at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s religious congregation. “I think they will do something this time,” he said.

Suhail Ahmed's eatery has suffered sharp losses the past week as a result of his staff leaving Ayodhya-Faizabad. The men were fearful of communal violence in the wake of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's November 25 dharma sabha. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Since the late 1980s, for three decades now, the BJP has used the Ram temple issue to prop itself up electorally, going from a party of two Lok Sabha MPs in 1984 to winning a majority in the lower house exactly 30 years later. However, this has also resulted in diminishing returns. “The timing of the demand – every time before a major election – has resulted in a credibility crisis for the BJP,” explained Badri Narayan, political analyst and professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, which was renamed Prayagraj in October. “And the party has not done anything on the issue for years now.”

Where is development?

There are other residents of Ayodhya who hold Adityanath responsible not only for the failure to construct the Ram temple but also for the lack of development in the town. Usha Devi Mishra runs a store selling religious books at Ram ki Paidi, one of the town’s most famous ghats and the site of Adityanath’s grand Diwali celebrations. Mishra appreciates the festivities but is also miffed that no permanent improvements were made to the area. “It was beautified for that day but since there is no security and not enough toilets, it is already getting dirty,” said Mishra, referring to the town’s acute problem of open defecation.

A few shops down from Mishra’s, 70-year old Meena Devi runs a tea stall. “Instead of simply lighting diyas [referring to the Diwali celebrations], it would have been better if the water of Ram ki Paidi had been cleaned,” suggested Debi. “Look at how dirty it is.”

Suryakant Tiwari, 28, a resident of Ayodhya’s twin town of Faizabad who is studying mass communications at the Avadh University there, thinks that the national focus on the Ram temple has harmed Ayodhya-Faizabad. “Every time there is some trouble, our neighbourhoods shut down,” said Tiwari. “Outside politics has caused us so much trouble. We only want jobs and employment.”

Usha Devi Mishra is concerned about open defecation on the ghats of the Saryu river and wishes the government would tackle that. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Tiwari’s view is unusual in Ayodhya and Faizabad where few Hindus directly deny that a Ram temple should be constructed. However, the low turnout at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s November 25 meeting may indicate that enthusiasm for the construction of the Ram temple has waned considerably since the early 1990s. The dharma sabha attracted a crowd that could barely fill half the venue and consisted primarily of Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers. The local population of Ayodhya and Faizabad stayed put in their homes.

Sudha Pai, retired professor of political science at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained that while Hindutva was effective in Uttar Pradesh for the 2017 Assembly elections, it might be different in 2019. “It does look like people are unhappy with unemployment, GST [Goods and Services Tax] and agrarian distress,” said Pai. “So this time Hindutva might not work to that extent.”

Not only has the BJP’s Hindutva push ignored economic distress, political turmoil means it has actually exacerbated it in Ayodhya and Faizabad. In the Chowk area of Faizabad, Suhail Ahmad’s eatery has suffered significant losses since his mostly Muslim staff left the city fearing communal violence in the wake of dharma sabha. “My shop has been practically shut for the past four days without the workers,” complained Ahmad. “How can we go on like this?”

Satyendra Das, the head priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya, at his home. Das feels that the BJP is misleading Ram devotees with respect to the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in order to win votes. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

2019 Hindutva push

But the BJP’s mayor for Ayodhya-Faizabad, Rishikesh Upadhyay, argues that fears of economic distress are overstated. “Unemployment is a national problem, not only in Ayodhya,” Upadhyay said. “In fact, our Diwali celebrations [this year] provided employment. The kumhar [clay worker], dhunia [maker of candle wicks] and telwalah [oil supplier] got work.”

The money and effort spent on Hindutva events is well warranted as it is an exercise in public education too, argued the mayor. “99% of children will be unable to say why Diwali is celebrated,” said Upadhyay. “The coming generation is busy on Facebook. We need to make them aware of their culture and history.”

Like many other Hindutva leaders at the dharma sabha, Upadhyay also passed the buck to the Supreme Court for moving the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute hearing to January, lowering the chances of a verdict coming before the Lok Sabha elections that are due in April or May. The court is hearing a batch of petitions challenging a 2010 Allahabad High Court verdict that ordered a three-way division of the land on which the Babri Masjid stood before Hindutva activists demolished it on December 6, 1992.

“This is being delayed so that the BJP does not take credit for it in the Lok Sabha elections,” claimed Upadhyay. “But the Supreme Court also functions as per the Indian Constitution. It is not like it has come from Pakistan and can do what it wants.”

However, Satyendra Das, the head priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya, disagrees with the BJP on this. “These speeches and dharma sabhas will not get us the temple,” said Das. “Only the court can do that.” Das continued: “Ram devotees are being misled. They were told [by the BJP] that the first thing they would do when in power is build the Ram mandir. But nothing like that happened.” The Ram statue and the renaming of Faizabad are pointless without a Ram temple, Das said. “This is being done only to mislead devotees and get the BJP back into power.”