February 14, 2002



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The Election Special/Prem Panicker

The key to Ayodhya

On March 15, or so they tell me, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad spearheaded by Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans and his Ram Janambhoomi Nyas intends to bring in huge pillars, prefabricated walls, ceilings, et al into the Ram Janambhoomi complex.

Well, good luck to them -- I couldn't manage to take even a writing pad and pen into the area.

The security is tighter than a... never mind. It's tight. Well before the makeshift temple even comes into view, you enter a maze of steel barricades, dotted with security personnel like so many khaki signposts.

Before you enter, you are stripped of pretty much everything you have got on. My belt and watch are the first casualties -- leather is taboo. The notebook is confiscated, also the pen. I try to argue a case for those two most inoffensive items -- the written word has caused bloodshed, true, but surely writing implements in themselves have not?

The security personnel -- part Special Task Force, part regular police drawn from Punjab, Kerala and other states -- don't listen too good in this part of the world. 'Nikaalo!' the cop says, fish-eyed and unrelenting. No matches, no cigarettes. I can carry my visiting cards, but not the metal case they are in. Money sure, but not the wallet -- no leather.

As you comply, preparatory to entering the maze and meriting a 30-second glimpse of the deity before you are shooed away, you realise that in Ayodhya, Lord Ram is a prisoner. With steel barricades and helmeted, gun-toting guards to protect Him from His subjects, His devotees. And the only comment worth making is a glance upwards, and a muttered 'Hey, Ram!'

OUTSIDE the Janambhoomi complex, 2,86,000 registered voters of the Ayodhya-Faizabad assembly constituency go about the business of existence. And elections.

Almost to a man, they will greet you with 'Jai Shri Ram' which, in these parts, replaces 'Good morning' as the salutation of choice. But other than that, mention of the divinity in their midst is greeted with cynicism.

"Bhagwan Ram to aaj ek devta se ek muddha ban gaye hain," Umashankar Tiwari says wryly. "Whenever the BJP and the VHP want to stir things up, they bring up His name; the rest of the time, very few people even go there!"

Tiwari owns a shop -- one of several dozen -- just outside the barricaded entrance to the Janambhoomi, selling agarbattis, camphor, marigold garlands, coconuts, photos and icons of the deity, all the paraphernalia of religion. He is also the unofficial, but acknowledged, spokesman for the shopkeepers of the locality.

"Umeed thi," he says, "that lots of pilgrims would come here, and we would all prosper. But that hope has proved false. Initially, people did not want to come here fearing trouble. Then the government banned all vehicles from Ayodhya -- everything was stopped some 3km outside this area. So that too caused pilgrims to stay away -- and if there are no pilgrims, what will shopkeepers like us do?

"Only recently, [Mahant Ramachandra] Paramhansji forced the government to permit vehicles to come through the barricades. But by then all this talk of construction on March 15 began, and that has put pilgrims off."

But will construction begin on March 15, as promised? Tiwari shrugs his shoulders. "Aisa hai," he explains, "if the BJP comes to power in UP, then nothing will happen till the next time there is an election. But if Mulayam Singh comes to power, or Mayawati, you watch -- they will start construction, they will do everything to give the new government a tough time."

The Ram temple issue, however, is what catapulted the BJP to the status of a national party. Surely, it will play a part in this election as well?

"Not at all," the shop-owner argues. "That issue was at its peak in the 1993 elections. But even in 1996, the impact had started to die down, and this time it will be even lesser."

BUT IF Ram is not the issue in Ayodhya of all places, what is?

It all depends on who you ask. Lalloo Singh, Minister for Electricity in the Rajnath Singh government, is the BJP candidate for the seat, and the favourite to retain a seat he first captured in 1991, then retained in 1993 and 1996.

Addressing a street-corner meeting in Faizabad, Singh in his 10-minute speech hammers hard on the terrorism issue. The attack on Parliament was, the way he tells it to his audience of some 300, an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Vajpayee and Home Minister Advani and thereby, to give India's pride a slap in the face.

Will you allow someone to slap you in the face? Singh asks. On cue, the crowd yells No! That's right, Singh says, if someone does that to you, 'to muh-tod jawaab denge!' And similarly, the Indian government will give Pakistan a muh-tod jawaab, once the elections are over and the BJP is elected.

What the connection is between assembly elections here and the India-Pakistan face-off, Lalloo Singh does not explain. He doesn't have to -- electioneering, here, is all about rabble-rousing rhetoric. And thus, he deftly skips to POTO, which is portrayed as the brahmastra, the ultimate weapon, in India's fight against Pakistani terrorism. And rounds off with a quick listing of all that he has done for the constituency during his tenure as minister -- ensuring that the lights don't go out being the chief of them.

"The people are all concerned about terrorism," Singh elaborates, in the course of a quick conversation after he completes his speech. "It is a burning issue here, as it is all over India. And people are aware of the need to strengthen Vajpayeeji's hand in order that he can fight terrorism and bring an end to it."

Singh believes the VHP's fighting words with regard to temple construction will also have an impact on the outcome. "This is Ayodhya, land of Sri Ram. How can people not support a party that wants to build a temple in his name?"

Singh's main rival, Ved Prakash Gupta of the Samajwadi Party, scoffs. "This government talks of fighting terrorism, but look at its record," is the refrain of his street-corner orations. "The prime minister gets into a bus with press people in attendance and goes off to Lahore. And at the same time, our land is invaded in Kargil, our jawans are killed, and we did nothing about it. Musharraf came to Agra, insulted us on our own soil and went away and we did nothing. The Srinagar assembly is attacked, Parliament is attacked, but we could do nothing. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu Pandits and others are killed in Kashmir, we do nothing but talk."

Gupta tells his listeners that it is this impotence that forced him to quit the BJP, of which he was a member till very recently, and join the SP. If the fact that Gupta made an abortive bid for a BJP ticket had anything to do it, the candidate isn't telling.

Gupta argues that the BJP government's non-performance, both at the Centre and in the state, will be the single biggest reason for the party's downfall. "You must have travelled around UP; you would have seen the wave in Mulayam Singhji's favour, what does that tell you?" he asks me. "People are fed up with the BJP. Corruption has increased, prices have gone up, all developmental work has come to an end. This time, the Samajwadi Party will win here, and throughout the state."

Abhay Singh of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and Ashok Singh of the Congress, are the other main candidates in the fray -- but as you walk around Ayodhya and Faizabad, it is very apparent that in this constituency, it is a straight fight between the BJP and the SP.

THE previous election, in 1996, had seen Lalloo Singh take the seat by a margin of over 20,000 votes, while polling 45 per cent of the votes cast.

His main rival on that occasion, Jai Shankar Pandey, is seen by locals and even members of the BJP's local campaign committee as a good man and a strong candidate, who could have given the incumbent a scare this time. Pandey, however, has shifted to the nearby Khatehari constituency, currently held by the BSP's Dharmraj Nishad. And neither Ved Prakash Gupta nor Abhay Singh has, in popular perception, the electoral legs to outrun the incumbent at the hustings.

Mention of Pandey's name, however, brings up the real key to elections in this part of the world -- caste.

Issues certainly abound. Thus, shopkeepers talk of the declining volume of business consequent to the drop in the number of pilgrims coming to Ayodhya. Rajendra Pandey, who owns an oil and provisions shop that, ironically as it turns out, flies the BJP flag, talks of other games politicians have played.

"Some time back," Pandey says, "there was a scare that oil was being adulterated. Here, we use sunflower oil a lot, many villages have small oil mills that produce the oil, which is sold at around Rs 30 a litre. All those mills were forcibly shut down, all the oil was seized. And the only oil available was a brand that comes in a sealed bottle, at Rs 70 a litre. And do you know where that oil comes from? From the factory of Advani's son, in NOIDA! Tell me, how can poor people like us afford oil at that cost? Meanwhile, so many people went out of business when their mills were shut down!"

Hausla Prakash Tiwari, meanwhile, owns two Ambassador cars which he runs as taxis, driving one of them himself. Three years ago, he had five vehicles -- now, only two remain.

"During Mulayam Singhji's time," he explains, "we used to pay a tax of Rs 750 per taxi, and an additional tax of Rs 300 plus insurance of Rs 500. Now, the tax has been raised to Rs 9,000. Insurance is 5,000. Then there is a fitness certificate which is supposed to be Rs 50 -- but you have to pay Rs 1,000, though the receipt you get is only for fifty rupees. There is also a road tax of Rs 500 and a miscellaneous tax of Rs 8,500. Plus, the price of diesel has gone up to Rs 20 per litre.

"Now you tell me, how can anyone pay nearly 25,000 as tax and survive? That is why all taxi and truck owners and drivers are angry with the BJP, they won't get a single vote from us."

The story is repeated, ad infinitum, as you canvass the voters in the region. Crippling taxes, spiralling prices, misgovernance, corruption -- these are refrains as common as the Jai Shri Ram greeting.

And yet -- none of it matters. There are, apparently, two kinds of issues -- issues of survival, and issues of elections.

What was detailed above belongs to the first category. In the second category, there is only one issue -- caste.

Harishankar Yadav, who runs Lalloo Singh's election office in Faizabad, makes no bones about it. "It is this way," he explains. "When Thakur fights Thakur, the candidate's performance and reputation are deciding factors. Look at this constituency - the BJP, the BSP and Congress have all fielded Thakurs. Out of that, Lalloo Singhji, our candidate, is a minister, and he has done some good for this area, so the biradiri (community) will vote for him.

"The real key is the SP's candidate, Gupta -- a Bania. As a rule of thumb, the Muslims and the Yadavs will support Mulayam, the Brahmins, Kayasths, Thakurs and Banias will support the BJP and the scheduled castes will support the BSP.

"Because Gupta is a Bania, we won't get that community's vote in its entirety, a good bit of that will go to Gupta. But against that, the previous candidate, Pandey, was a Brahmin. So in 1996, we lost a good bit of the Brahmin vote. Pandey is not standing this time, so that vote has been 'released', and it will come to us."

Rough and ready estimates indicate that a good 40 per cent of the electorate here is Brahmin. The scheduled castes and Muslims are the next major group, comprising around 25 per cent. Fifteen per cent are Banias, and a further 16 per cent Kayasths, with assorted others comprising the rest.

"Look at the arithmetic," Yadav exults. "Even if the SP takes away a good part of the Bania vote, Pandeyji's absence means that we get the bulk of the Brahmin vote. And Brahmins outnumber the Banias here by a large margin -- so Lalloo Singhji will be returned with an even greater majority this time!"

Simple, right? In the land of Ram, the vote is caste.

Prem Panicker is on his way to Pratapgarh, where he hopes to find out what it is that makes ruling alliance candidate Raghuraj Pratap Singh aka Raja Bhaiya much-feared among the voters. If you have any queries for him, click here. And if you want to check out all our reporters on campaign trail, click here.

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