Construction cranes towered over workmen erecting a massive three-story temple that had been sought by millions of Hindus for over a century. The shrine is devoted to their most cherished god, Ram, and is being erected on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu mob.
It’s one of numerous frantic building projects in Ayodhya, a dusty, sacred city in Uttar Pradesh, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking reelection by promoting Hindu-first policies and economic success.
Manish Yadav, a 25-year-old student, saw this as the first evidence of growth in this once-sleepy city.
Modi’s BJP has won both national elections with a landslide. However, state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with over 230 million people, are critical, serving as a barometer of the party’s support ahead of the 2024 federal elections. Over 150 million residents in the state will vote in seven rounds beginning on Thursday, with results expected in March. In February and March, four more states will have elections, with the BJP vying for power in all but one of them.
“Ayodhya must be a success for us.” “We need businesses to come in and invest, industries, technical institutions, institutes, and employment here so that people don’t leave,” Yadav added. He stated that he supported for the BJP in 2019 because it pledged to construct the temple, and that “now we need more.”
Yogi Adityanath, a divisive Hindu monk turned politician, is now the governor of Uttar Pradesh for the BJP. Yadav claims that the government has failed to create work for him and millions of others. Nonetheless, he will vote for them once more.
Infrastructure, particularly massive expressways and airports, appears to be the BJP’s solution to increasing connectivity and tourism. Analysts, however, are skeptical that massive public expenditure on such projects would be enough to jumpstart growth in Uttar Pradesh, a primarily impoverished and rural state where unemployment is on the rise.
According to economist Santosh Mehrotra, who reviewed national labor data, young unemployment has surged fivefold under Adityanath.
The BJP, on the other hand, has made big promises. It claims to attract investment, offer free power to farmers, and create 20 million jobs, but provides little facts.
It’s also enticing supporters with welfare reforms, such as boosting free meals for the needy and taking a stern line against crime.
The party’s primary Hindu nationalist objective, on the other hand, is unmistakable. After inaugurating a $45 million corridor connecting two important holy sites in the state, Modi took a swim in the Ganges River in front of thousands in December. Analysts claim that such incidents have transformed temple inaugurations into political spectacles that divert attention away from more urgent causes.
“You can only build so much employment and growth around a temple,” Mehrohtra explained.
The high-profile initiatives, which neatly combine religion and infrastructure, are intended to appease the BJP’s Hindu constituency despite concerns of voter dissatisfaction. Last time, the party won the state by combining Hindu votes from all castes. However, repeated defections to the opposition Samajwadi Party, whose secular appeal has attracted voters from all castes, as well as the Muslim minority, have created doubts.
Farmers, a powerful electoral constituency, are still enraged with Modi for enacting farm regulations that sparked a year of protests before he caved in and overturned them in November. The BJP is also facing claims of COVID-19 mishandling in the state, following a devastating outbreak of the disease last year that resulted in dozens of bodies floating in the Ganges.
The elections are a referendum on Adityanath, the saffron-robed Hindu right-winger who some observers say is trying to become the next prime minister. Following the BJP’s victory in 2017, he was named chief minister, the highest state official.
“It’s an election test on his brand as a leader because he embodies a more radical kind of Hindu nationalism and is too sectarian than others in the BJP,” said Gilles Verniers, an Ashoka University political science professor.
Adityanath, the leader of a powerful Hindu temple, has seen a spike in violence against Muslims, with several allegations of lynchings and other atrocities. Adityanath has described the next election to be a “80 percent versus 20%” campaign, which approximately corresponds to Uttar Pradesh’s Hindu and Muslim populations. In an interview with local media, he defined the findings as a majority of people who desire growth and safety vs a minority who reject it.
“The BJP has constructed housing and bathrooms for the needy without discriminating based on caste or religion.” “No one can claim that the benefits of government schemes have only reached Hindus and not Muslims,” said BJP state vice president Vijay Bahadur Pathak.
Mohammed Noor, an auto-rickshaw driver in Lucknow, the state capital, understood the significance. “Until the Yogi regime arrived, no one could tell a Hindu from a Muslim in this town.” But, since the BJP’s ascension to power, they’ve cultivated a sense of division and difference, which has only deepened,” he added.
“We have given up — we have no hope, we have stopped reacting,” said Shabbar Siddique, an 18-year-old from Lucknow.
Even the Muslims in Ayodhya have expressed their displeasure with the temple’s development.
“What can we say?” says the narrator. We’ll have to follow the ruling because it came from the highest court,” said Syed Zia Haider Rizvi, the owner of a watch business. “As a businessperson, I should make money.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the temple, putting an end to one of India’s longest-running land disputes and ordering that alternate property be supplied for a mosque. Many Hindus, who believe Ram was born there, applauded the decision, while a leading Muslim organization condemned it.
The demolition of the mosque in 1992 sparked riots across India, killing 2,000 people, predominantly Muslims. Many Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are feeling increasingly fearful and apprehensive, despite the fact that inhabitants of Ayodhya insist there have been no religious tensions since the mosque riots.
The BJP portrayed the court decision, which came after the national elections in 2019, as a victory. Observers believe that the excitement around the judgment aided Modi’s electoral victory.
Analysts now feel the party has gotten everything it can out of the shrine.
“They certainly take the cake for keeping Hindu passions alive for decades and decades in the name of the temple,” said Sharat Pradhan, a political analyst in Lucknow. “However, I believe it has outlived its electoral promise.”
Another sacred city in Uttar Pradesh is already being invoked by BJP officials. Adityanath initially referenced Mathura in December, which is said to be the birthplace of Krishna, a significant Hindu god. A recent court challenge brought by Hindu priests in relation to a 17th-century mosque in the area may revive tensions.
Mathura, like Ayodhya, will get a temple, and work on it is already “in way,” according to local media reports.
“Now that they’ve won Ayodhya, they’ll need a new war – where will they focus their attention next?” asked Verniers, a political science professor. “As soon as the Ram temple is dedicated, they’ll have to find something else to do.”