“It is only a matter of time but it will definitely be constructed,” says Paltu Ram Pandey, a priest who lives near the disputed site in Ayodhya.
Despite his disappointment that a Ram temple could not be built even when a majority BJP government was in power, Mr. Pandey takes a pragmatic approach. He says Prime Minister Narendra Modi did what he could, but the legal procedures and the Congress acted as obstacles.
What he is impressed with is the development work in Ayodhya over the past five years — street lights, better power supply and roads — and the Yogi Adityanath government’s efforts to showcase the town with grand Deepotsav festivals.
For a town that grabs international limelight over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmanhoomi issue, the dispute hardly finds mention among voters. The opinion is polarised around Mr. Modi.
It is perhaps for the first time since 1989 that the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), which generally rakes up the Mandir issue, is not active in the election.
Mr. Modi himself signalled his priorities at an election rally in Gosaiganj, some 30 km from the temple town. As is his wont with contentious issues, Mr. Modi avoided mentioning the Ram temple but hailed Ayodhya as the land of “Prabhu Ram” and the “country’s pride”. He concluded his speech with thrice raising the slogan of “Jai Jai Sri Ram”.
While the Opposition parties are criticising Mr. Modi for avoiding Ayodhya, incumbent BJP MP Lallu Singh defended the PM saying a packed poll schedule left him with no time to visit the makeshift temple. The choice of Gosaiganj also allowed him to cover two constituencies — Ayodhya and Ambedkar Nagar, Mr. Singh told a news channel.
A BJP party coordinator pointed out that the temple issue no longer had electoral punch and in 2014, it was only under the “Modi wave” that the BJP secured a record 48% votes in Faizabad, a massive jump of 27% from 2009.
Ayodhya will play host to a triangular contest with Mr. Lallu Singh, linked to the Babri Masjid demolition, facing the Congress’s former MP Nirmal Khatri and the Samajwadi Party’s Anand Sen Yadav.
Mr. Anand Sen hopes to carry forward the legacy of his father and Communist leader Mitrasen Yadav. Mr. Mitrasen Yadav won Faizabad thrice — first with the CPI in 1989, then in 1998 as an SP candidate and finally with the BSP in 2004.
Mr. Mitrasen Yadav has the dubious distinction of being convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966 before being released by the Governor six years later on a mercy plea.
Controversy has followed his son, too. In 2011, as a BSP Minister, Mr. Anand Sen was convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a pregnant Dalit law student in 2007. However, while his driver was punished, Mr. Anand Sen was acquitted by the Allahabad High Court in 2013.
While SP leaders say the issue is too old to have any negative impact, senior Faizabad journalist K.P. Singh says members of the Pasi community to which the victim belonged are unlikely to forgive and vote for Mr. Anand Sen.
Mr. Singh also said there was discontent in the community after the SP overlooked Avdesh Verma, a senior Pasi leader, in ticket distribution. Pasis and Koris, President Ram Nath Kovind’s caste, are the largest Dalit castes in Faizabad, with more numbers that the Jatavs of the BSP.
However, SP leaders point out that the Pasi voters in Faizabad have traditionally been with the BSP as it has encouraged a cadre and leadership of the likes of R.K. Chaudhary.
In Pasi-dominated Salehpur village in Bikapur segment, livelihood and development dominate the discussions. Prem Bahadur, who is into decoration work, is disenchanted with the BJP as the government has failed to fill reserved seats for police jobs, while some women are unhappy that the Samajwadi Party’s pension scheme was discontinued.
But there is also praise for the toilets, power connections and the Ujwala and the PM-KISAN schemes, especially among the women. Manjeeta Kumari is happy she received the first instalment of ₹2,000. A pink pamphlet of the Congress promising NYAY or ₹72,000 annually to the poor is in her hand. So what does she think of it? “When they are not winning, how will they give it,” she asks dismissively.
At the Tedhi Bazar crossing in Ayodhya, a few locals have gathered for their evening tea. The tea-seller, a Yadav, is critical of the Modi government and some others share his cynicism. Like Ram Kumari, who is unhappy with the biometric system for obtaining ration. The fingerprints don't always match, she said.
“They say they will build a temple, but have done nothing. Nobody is going to build the temple. But they should at least solve this fingerprint issue,” she said.
Hari Prakash, a Soni (OBC) tailor, seated next to her, however, says Ayodhya being “Ramnagri” will always be with the BJP. “Tell me, what has he done wrong,” replied Prakash, when asked what good Mr. Modi brought to his life, before listing power supply, better roads, street-lights, taps and PM-KISAN.
Nanku Yadav, quickly retorts that Ayodhya being a religious site always had good supply of power and water.
“BJP is not doing any favours. It only misleads people,” he said.
The Congress and the SP are locked in a fight for the Muslim votes. The community has largely been silent, gauging the situation to pick the best candidate to defeat BJP.
Haji Mehboob, a petitioner and member of Babri Action Committee, indicates they will side with the alliance. “Congress doesn't have a presence,” he said, fearing the party might only cut into crucial votes.
Though Mr. Mehboob shares a personal relationship with the COngress candidate Khatri, who he lauds for being an approachable person, and is critical of Anand Sen's controversial image, the alliance of SP-BSP has shifted the balance.
The BJP is also fighting to retain the large chunk of OBC and Dalit votes it poached last time. Kamlakanth Sundaram, BJP poll in-charge of Ayodhya municipal corporation,said “Ramji ka naam” would provide the BJP 70-80% votes in the urban area, including those of various OBC and Dalit castes who are connected to some temple or mutt in Ayodhya.
Mr. Sundaram admits the party is facing critical questions on the Ram temple but asks if the voters can ignore the development work, including a bus station that is coming up at a cost of ₹120 crore, a new railway station, sewage treatment plants on the Saryu river to keep it clean and ₹133 crore sanctioned by the Centre to develop Ayodhya as a tourism hub.
The SP-BSP alliance, however, wants to push the narrative of “85 vs 15”, to polarise OBCs and Dalits against upper castes, especially on the issue of reservation. Both the Congress and BJP candidates belong to the upper castes.
A key aspect of that would be to cut into the Kurmi votes by raking up the stray cattle issue and the agrarian crisis.
Krishna Kumar Patel, Bikapur in-charge of the SP, said they were also dispelling notions among his community that Yadavs ate up all jobs. He feels the BJP tricked the Kurmi community for votes. Not a single Kurmi has made to the cabinet and all nine private sector experts recently appointed as joint secretaries are “savarnas,” he pointed out.
“They are providing ₹2,000 to farmers. But if a farmer is growing sugarcane in just one bigha, he suffers losses of ₹25,000 due to stray cattle. They have no strategy to stop this,” he said.
Despite the alliance, a lack of mobilisation of the non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalits, along with the huge deficit of 2014, means the work is cut out for the SP. In 2014, the combined vote of the alliance was 34%, 12% less than that of the BJP, which is relying more on Mr. Modi and less on Lord Ram.