AYODHYA: The normally bustling temple town is silent. The shopkeepers selling largely temple fare are sitting idly outside waiting for the pilgrims who fail to make an appearance. Demonetisation has hit them hard, as even the few people who do come do not spend on goods other than what is required for the darshan.

As we turn into the tiny, winding gully taking us to what was the Babri mosque and to which we are now directed as “Ramjanambhoomi” the stillness is striking. Except for the shopkeepers and the odd pilgrims the quaint little gully, taking us past old temples and crumbling antiquated structures, is deserted.

“Has demonetisation hit you” we start asking. The first shopkeeper answers with a “No.” The second is more vocal, “not at all, it has made no difference.” The third says the same but when asked why the normally busy area is so quiet said, “people will come.” When? “Later.” The fourth shopkeeper insists that only the rich have been hurt by demonetisation, “nothing has happened to us.”

The fifth one we speak to, by now a little deeper into the gully, is selling garments. “Of course notebandi has hit us, there is no business, there is no money, we have been destroyed.” Surprised as one had expected all in the vicinity to support notebandi, being confessed BJP voters, we said everyone is saying it is fine. He smiled, and said you should ask them again, can you see any customers.

His name he said was Mohammad Najeeb, and his family had the shop since the past 80 years. Are you not scared of speaking out when no one around you agrees? “Why should I be scared,” comes the immediate response, “what is there to be scared about? I am speaking the truth and they all know that.”

They did. And as we moved further in, and away from the main road, the dejection was palpable. No customers, notebandi has hurt you, we asked. And the response varied from a quick shake of the head in agreement, to a more vocal, “yes there is no business” to a longer, “we are lucky if we earn Rs 100 a day.” One shopkeeper selling vermillion and accessories said that this Rs 2000 was another problem as “how do we give the change, we dont even earn a 100.”

Most of them in the little temple town will not switch to any other party but the BJP. Whether they will go out to vote is the moot question that is met with a “of course we will” response by some and a “let us wait for the day” by the other. This turns into a blank stare when reminded that polling is due on Feb 19 in these parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The lack of enthusiasm is visible here. In adjacent Faizabad there is a little more interest, but unlike Western UP where the voters did not stop talking, in these parts the voters are silent. They are not sharing their political views and it takes time, and some questioning for the “let us see what happens” to change into a more assertive view. And that too in just some cases, with the voters in even busy marketplaces keeping away from inquisitive reporters.

The candidates admit that this is true. A senior Congress leader in Faizabad who did not want to be quoted said “no one is talking.” Samajwadi party Minister and candidate from Kursi Farid Kidwai agreed saying that this time the voters were unusually silent. No one could say why.

But it is certain that through Barabanki, Faizabad, Ayodhya, Fatehpur, Kursi----the entire belt the BJP support has waned. In Barabanki, the indifferent crowd brought in scores of buses for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally spoke volumes. It impacted on him as well, in that his speech was relatively lacklustre with even the barbs drawing little response from the crowd at least in this region. Many had arrived late, others kept shifting, and the mega show advertised by the BJP turned to be a bit of a damp squib. There was nothing to report except perhaps the lack of interest.

Notebandi has done the BJP in. Party loyalists are still trying to defend it as in Ayodhya, but the voices are muted and few. Everyone has felt the impact adversely with the small shops, tourist dependent towns like Ayodhya, small businesses badly burt. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav makes sure he rubs it in in every speech---and he is covering more ground than any of the others on a daily basis---where he speaks of the hardship being faced by the poor, while the rich have not been impacted. And black money hardly dented.

Development and Demonetisation have taken over the campaign with communalism not finding a plank in these constituencies set to vote on February 19. Ayodhya is calm, with the police forming three rings outside the makeshift temple and confiscating everything from broken combs to pens to of course cameras, mobiles as per directions of the Supreme Court before even pilgrims are allowed to go to the disputed site. There are no posters, no BJP flags, no attempt even at propaganda by the shopkeepers who used to be normally quite aggressive about their positions in earlier polls.

There is no doubt that the BJP has lost support and is nowhere close to its 2014 popularity today. How much ground has it lost will be determined when the votes are counted.

(Cover Photograph GAYETI SINGH: Demonetisation takes a toll in Ayodhya)