Does Ayodhya solely vote in the name of Lord Ram? Not always

This time, the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance has ensured a difficult contest

46-Shops-selling-religious-flags-in-Ayodhya Business as usual: Shops selling religious flags in Ayodhya | Sanjoy Ghosh

FAITH―THAT WAVERING, amorphous being―is as difficult to describe as it is to tame. Think of it as a shape-shifter. In Ayodhya (Faizabad parliamentary constituency), a town of big faith and bigger mysteries, it has changed form swiftly. And in what might appear to be equal part disbelief and myth, Ayodhya does not vote solely in the name of its most loved son, Ram.

In its narrow lanes―resonating with the sounds of bells and conch shells―along the drying Sarayu and under a cruel summer sun, the Ram Mandir is not ‘the’ roaring electoral issue. The loud excitement of January 22―the day of the pran pratishtha (consecration) of the idol of Ram―has settled into the monotonous twang of everyday living. For local residents, there are the huge crowds to grapple with. For Lord Ram, there is an unending stream of devotees, keeping him awake as he smiles at them beyond the regular darshan hours. (There have been repeated appeals to delay visits till the crowds are more manageable.)

Ayodhya, which cast its vote on May 20, has not always favoured the stalwarts of the Ram Mandir movement. In this nagri (city) of tyaag (sacrifice), poor losers have been made out of giant winners. In 1998, instead of choosing Vinay Katiyar, founder of the Bajrang Dal, the constituency went with Mitrasen Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. A year later, Katiyar romped home. In 2004, he was out, and Yadav, who was then with the Bahujan Samaj Party, won. In 2009, the electorate went with Nirmal Khatri of the Congress. Lallu Singh, 69, of the BJP won the seat in the last two elections.

This time, the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance has ensured a difficult contest. In 2019, Samajwadi’s Anand Sen Yadav polled slightly over 4.63 lakh votes, while Khatri’s vote count was just over 53,000. This brings it to 5.13 lakh votes, against the BJP’s 5.29 lakh. It does not help Lallu Singh that the alliance candidate against him is nine-time MLA Awadhesh Prasad, 78, of the Samajwadi Party. Also, even as the Ram Mandir was becoming a reality, Singh’s winning margin saw a dip. It was over 2.8 lakh in 2014, but fell to just over 65,000 in 2019.

Noor Alam, a furniture shop owner, said, “Ayodhya is peaceful. Conflicts belong to the past. We suffered because of road widening for a few months, but now things are better.” His vote, he said, would go to a candidate who ensured the wellbeing of his community and development for the local residents, and not just tourists.

Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, president of the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, said Ayodhya was a dham (residence of the divine) that stood with the truth, not with power. He cited the example of Ram’s younger brother Bharat, who eschewed the throne and ruled in his brother’s name for 14 years. “Ayodhya will only accept an impartial candidate,” he said. “Social solidarity is a pillar of Ram Rajya.”

Lallu Singh has a politician’s set reputation―accessible, but not necessarily receptive. When he was approached by the many people whose shops and homes were being razed, he made himself scarce. His home, despite standing on one of the widened roads, was not touched. But on the campaign trail, he endeared himself to women voters by asking for simple food―thick rotis and chutney.

Singh, the incumbent MP, said, “The last man standing has benefited from our welfare schemes. Ram nagri has become the centre of tourism for the world.”

Many are unsure that Ayodhya’s rising attraction as a tourist spot is an unvarnished success. Those living at a distance from the town, across the five assembly constituencies, are fearful that their lands, too, will be acquired as the temple town’s growth pans outwards.

At Guptar Ghat, where Ram entered the Sarayu and was never seen again, stands the ubiquitous sign ‘I love Ayodhya’. That declaration, where love is symbolised by a red heart, is what one finds across countless cities. As elsewhere, it is a photo/selfie point (of which there are 13 in Ayodhya), and locals often complain about the poses being struck here or the reels being made. Some distance away is a statue of Maharana Pratap, atop his horse Chetak. Not one pujari (priest) in the temples along the ghat can deduce the relationship between the Rajput ruler and Ayodhya. One pujari wondered why a promised statue of Lord Ram had yet not materialised. “Politics is stronger than bhakti (devotion),” he said.

One oft-heard recollection by Ayodhya’s sanyasis is that when the town was being given a makeover, a delegation went to meet Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in Lucknow. Among the concerns was the razing of iconic landmarks such as the Hanuman Garhi gate. The chief minister offered the sanyasis lunch and sent them packing with the quip that he was doing their bidding when it came to the temple, thus their grouse was unfair.

There has been no construction yet at the five-acre site offered in lieu of the Babri Masjid, and in the din of campaigning, there is speculation that it is because of a wait for a return to the original plot of land. Athar Husain, spokesperson of the Indo-Islamic Cultural Foundation (the body responsible for the construction), said that the delay in construction of the complex was owing to a lack of funds.

“There is consensus among the clergy, too (on the acceptance of the Supreme Court verdict),” he said. “Statements to the effect that a lock would be put on the mandir are just politics in a Hindu-majority country. The mandir has never been an issue, as many political parties have been in power since the start of the movement.”

And so it goes in shape-shifting Ayodhya, which might be defined by Ram, but is not limited to him.