Ayodhya/Lucknow/Hardoi: People get fooled only once. You can’t carry on with the sham for too long. Everyone knows the Ram mandir issue is no longer valid, at least electorally, and nobody would vote for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or any other political party based on this issue,” said Heeralal Gupta, who runs a small shop in the market adjoining the disputed site at Ayodhya.
Gupta is not alone. While the BJP might have aggressively returned to its Hindutva agenda and reiterated its “commitment to building the Ram temple” at Ayodhya with an eye on the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh next year, the “mandir-masjid” issue clearly seems to have lost traction and relevance among the voters in the state.
The writing is on the wall for the BJP.
“BJP has no other issue left, so they have decided to focus on the Ram mandir issue yet again. This is just about desperation, so the BJP is obviously trying to reinvent the issue,” said Badri Narayan, an Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst.
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The Ram mandir issue
In Ayodhya, even while the zeal to see a Ram temple built on the disputed structure continues, the ordinary voter is circumspect about intervention by any political party.
“I have always been a hardcore BJP supporter, but now that is waning. The BJP has shown opportunism in raising the mandir issue, which now anyway is unimportant. What we want now is development, fight against corruption, etc. If BJP wants to fight on those issues, then yes, we will support them,” said Anup Mishra, a shopkeeper.
People in Ayodhya, which has always been a BJP stronghold, say they now vote for the candidate and not the party, which is why they would re-elect the current member of the state legislative assembly (MLA), Lallu Singh from the BJP, who has won from Ayodhya since 1991. “He has done some good work. We will vote for him as a personality, whichever party he may be in and not for BJP,” said Manoj Rao of Ayodhya.
Gearing up: (above) VHP spokesperson Sharad Sharma with a model of the Ram mandir; (top) BJP posters and flags line a street in Lucknow. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
This unease with political parties has only worsened after the Ayodhya land dispute reached the Supreme Court. In May, the court stayed a ruling of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court that divided the disputed land at Ayodhya between Hindu and Muslim groups.
Meanwhile, the local BJP unit concedes that Ayodhya can no longer be an election issue. But in the absence of any alternative, it prefers to stay focused on the temple issue.
“We know and understand the ground change. Nobody cares about mandir-masjid during elections now. Instead, development, employment, education are key issues. But as a political party, the BJP has no special agenda or appeal, apart from its commitment to establish Ram Rajya. That is why we are forced to adopt it here once again,” said a state-level BJP leader, who did not want to be identified.
However, other Hindu groups also believe this issue has no political traction, even though it continues to remain emotive.
“While the BJP’s issues and agenda are independent of ours, we believe the Ram mandir issue should not and cannot be used for political gains,” said Sharad Sharma, state spokesperson for the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). The VHP, a right-wing Hindu outfit, has been associated with the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, along with the BJP.
“Voters know the BJP means nothing. It was in power at the Centre but still did not do anything for the temple, so who will believe them?” said Ashok Pathak, in charge of Kar Sevak Puram in Ayodhya.
Political rivals are predictably critical.
“I don’t think that BJP can fool people with the Ayodhya issue any more. It was only SP (Samajwadi Party) which raised the genuine concerns of minorities,” said the party’s Akhilesh Yadav. “BJP’s response to the verdict shows their vested interest in the issue. And importantly, Hindus have understood it very well that BJP wants the issue only for votes. The fight is between BSP, SP and, at some level, Congress. BJP is nowhere in the picture.”
Not only is the BJP unable to find an issue that would rally the electorate, but it also is struggling to contain the steady erosion in its traditional vote bank. The party’s vote share contracted to 17% in 2007 from 23% in 2002. Worse still, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, it managed only 12% of the votes in the state, and ended up fourth after Mayawati’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the SP and the Congress. The party had a dismal run in the 2007 polls—its worst in the state since 1989, with a tally of only 50 seats in the 403-member assembly. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it won just 10 of 80 seats, down from 47 in 1998, when the BJP-led coalition came to power.
The Brahmin-Baniya-Thakur combination the BJP relied upon in Uttar Pradesh, and which along with other backward castes (OBCs), took it to power in the state on its own for the first time in 1991, was destroyed by Mayawati with the social coalition she engineered in the last assembly elections. However, its Brahmin vote bank had already started eroding in 1999. During the Virat Brahmin Mahasammelan in Sitapur in May 1999, the community signalled its shift after finding that the BJP-BSP coalition at the time was not benefiting the community. In the 13th Lok Sabha, BJP’s total tally came down to 30 in Uttar Pradesh, and in the following 2002 assembly elections, its vote share dipped to 20.8%.
“The Brahmin vote will get fragmented and divided between the Congress, BJP and BSP. In the last few elections, especially the 2007 assembly polls, the BJP lost this vote bank, so it will definitely try to woo them back. After all, Brahmins constitute 12% of the total population in the state, so the BJP’s main strategy will be to mobilize them. It, however, is unlikely to be successful,” Narayan said.
However, Kanpur-based political analyst A.K. Verma said: “BJP’s loss was BSP’s gain. BSP gained about 8% upper caste votes from BJP during 2007 polls.”
The party is now trying to rework its strategy.
“The Brahmin vote has traditionally been a key electorate for us, but in the last election they drifted away to the BSP. However, now all attempts are back to secure that vote bank again. That is our main election strategy,” said Rajiv Ranjan, BJP president for Hardoi district.
According to party officials who did not want to be identified, veteran leader Kalraj Mishra could well be the face of the campaign to steer Brahmin votes towards the BJP. Mishra has been a long-time chief ministerial contender. Earlier this year, Mishra, a Rajya Sabha member, national vice-president and a former state BJP chief, was put in charge of the party’s state poll campaign panel.
At the same time, to appeal to the OBC vote bank, the BJP reinducted Uma Bharti.
However, if signals from the electorate are any indication, it is apparent that the appeal has to go beyond conventional caste and community.
“I belong to the Brahmin community and used to vote for the BJP. But in the last few elections, I have been voting according to the merit of the candidate. There is only so much that you can vote based on caste. At some level, the party’s overall relevance and agenda becomes important,” said Manoj Tiwari of Sandila assembly constituency in Hardoi district, which has strong pockets of Brahmins.
Shanti Swaroop, also from Hardoi, concurs. “We vote for our MLA because he has done some good work. That is important. Any political party will need to reinvent itself if it wants to gain support.”
Appu Esthose Suresh contributed to this story.
This is the third and concluding part of a series that looks at how the three main political contestants in Uttar Pradesh —the BSP, the BJP and the Congress—are positioning themselves in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented electorate ahead of the state assembly elections.