This story first appread on Firstpost on 27th February 2017.
There are theories. And then there are theories. During the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, even the most astute political pundits have at best offered theories. In Faizabad’s most intensely fought seat of Ayodhya, there are theories suggesting Ram Mandir is an issue, and there are theories suggesting it is not.
As far as the youth is concerned — which this series aims to catch the pulse of — they remain ambivalent about it. The slogan-chanting millennial voters riding their bikes through the narrow bustling streets of Ayodhya with a saffron bandana wrapped around their heads and tikas on foreheads crave for the Mandir, and there are no prizes for guessing that. At the same time, a noticeable chunk feels what 22-year-old Gaurav Sonkar thinks. “Mandir will not ensure a job for hundreds of youngsters like me,” said the MSW student at Ram Manohar Lohia University in Faizabad. “What good will it ever achieve?”
Thinking of the majority of youngsters, however, lies somewhere in between Gaurav’s and the mob chanting “Jai Shree Ram”. Mandir does not get a mention in the top three election issues with millennial voters. Those spots are reserved for employment, women security and better standard of living. But when asked if it needs to be built, most, especially the upper caste Hindus, answer in the affirmative.
Rashmi Sharma, 20, a microbiology student in Faizabad, said she would be happy if it is built. “It is a holy place for Hindus,” said the daughter of an army man. “Hindus across the country come to Ayodhya. It is our identity. It would only be just if the Mandir is built.”
When Ayodhya goes to polls on 27 February, close to 40,000 Brahmins would be voting, and the BJP is eyeing to get a lion’s share of it. In 2012 assembly elections, Tej Narain Pandey of the Samajwadi Party won the Ayodhya seat, which hurt the ego of BJP. In a bid to displace “the party of the Muslims” from “Ram Ki Nagari”, the BJP has thrown all its weight behind its candidate Ved Prakash Gupta, who used to be with BJP until 2007, then defected to SP and Bahujan Samaj Party before coming back to BJP again. Even though it is said the workers do not like him for his attitude, they have put it aside to focus on the larger picture.
The RSS and BJP combined, are campaigning vigorously in Ayodhya. A senior journalist said that if the Brahmins vote against Pandey, who is a Brahmin and a sitting MLA, in favour of Gupta, a baniya, it is clear the vote is for Hindutva and Ram Mandir. “Pandey has been one of the better candidates of SP,” he said. “But I am sensing the public wants to reverse the 2012 verdict.”
Suresh Sharma, 21, MSc first year student in Faizabad, said the Mandir should be built soon. “It is part of the Hindu culture and it would be nice if it is preserved,” he said.
However, as one moves away from Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Mandir fades in the other four constituencies of Faizabad. The district has a large Dalit population, which makes Mayawati a serious contender. Kori, Dhobi and others could come back to BSP after voting for BJP in 2014, although BJP would retain a segment of the share. The second largest community among Dalits, Pasis, are split between SP, BSP and BJP. But Chamars, who are the largest among Dalits and form 12 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population, have always been with BSP and would not desert behenji.
Sunil Kumar, 23, an MSW student in Faizabad, said he has always backed Mayawati because “SP indulges in its own form of communalism to counter BJP’s poison”. “We need a leader who will ensure law and order and who thinks of the poor,” he said. “Akhilesh promises smartphones and gives away laptops. Instead, why not empower the electorate with jobs so they can buy their own laptops.”
In Gosainganj constituency, the BSP is giving BJP a run in its bid to displace the sitting SP MLA Abhay Singh, against whom there is a fair amount of anti-incumbency. BSP’s Nishad Dharmaraj, who is contesting from here, has been a minister before, could end up upsetting BJP.
While Mayawati’s base vote is significant, experts doubt if she would be able to get the add on vote, in order to overwhelm the other two heavyweights she is fighting against. Especially among the non-Dalit youth, her popularity wanes, where Akhilesh and Modi split the honors.
In Rudauli, for example, there are around 70,000 Muslim votes, which had split between the three parties in 2012 and BJP candidate ended up winning. Reports suggest the Muslim vote this time around is consolidating behind SP, which has the edge in Milkipur and Bikapur as well.
But the politics over caste and religion disgusts Gaurav. He believes the educated, at least, should move beyond it. “If caste or religion influenced my behavior, majority of my friends would not be Muslims or Dalits,” said the son of a fruit seller, who has four more siblings. He added he would have to migrate out of UP if he has to make a mark in life. “It is a task to find a 10,000 rupee job in UP and our PM and his party focus on polarisation. Our burning subject is Mandir. It is sad that quite a few in my university also feel it is an issue,” he said.
The BJP knows that. There are scores of people queuing up for hours to get inside the disputed territory and seek blessings of the idol kept in a tent where Babri Masjid once stood.
BJP leaders may not have hammered the point in massive rallies, but ground cadres say Mandir is what they speak about during door-to-door campaigns and mohalla sabhas. Also, the communal speeches by BJP leaders and Modi’s Shamshan-Kabristan remark does cater to the audience desperate for the Mandir.
Before arriving here, one came across articles suggesting the youth could not care less for the Mandir. But the undercurrent on the ground is a bit different. So here goes another theory. Millennial voters in the upper caste families may not feel as strongly about Ram Mandir as their parents do, and are not wasting their time agitating for it. But they would not have a problem with the ones doing so with communal overtones.