“‘Sadiyon ke pratiksha ke baad humare Ram aa gaye hain’ (after a wait of centuries our Ram has returned)”, declared Prime Minister Narendra Modi minutes after the much awaited consecration ceremony at Ayodhya on January 22 2024.

Since then he has been fervently calling upon people to vote for him for “bringing back Ram to Ayodhya”. Keeping the narrative around the Ram temple Modi warns people not to vote for the I.N.D.I.A. bloc as according to him “they would get the Supreme Court Ram Mandir verdict reversed, place a Babri lock on the mandir and bulldoze the temple”.

Despite PM Modi not letting go of the Ram Mandir narrative, in Ayodhya, the epicentre of the Ram Mandir movement, his appeal appears to be waning as Bharatiya Janata Party’s Lallu Singh is struggling to retain his Faizabad seat.

As the curtains come down on a high-octane campaign for the fifth round of polling, it is clear that the situation in the high stake seat of Ayodhya is far more complex. It is deeply influenced by caste equations which overshadows the temple narrative.

It emerges that I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s PDA: ‘Pichre’ (backward) Dalit and Alpsankhyak (minorities), has taken the wind out of the sails of the Ram Mandir buildup. The social justice plank of the Congress-Samajwadi party combine I.N.D.I.A. bloc has turned the narrative from ‘Ram’ to ‘Samvidhan’.

In his public meetings I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s Dalit candidate 78-year old sitting MLA from Milkipur, Awadhesh Prasad, interprets BJP’s slogan of “‘Abki baar 400 paar’ (this time cross 400)” as the saffron party’s resolve to amend the Constitution to get rid of reservation. This has helped him mobilise the Dalits and OBC solidly behind him. Add to this the Muslim vote bank and he seems to be heading a winning combination.

The approximate caste composition in Faizabad favours I.N.D.I.A. bloc’s candidate. There are 26 percent Dalits (Rawat,Chamar,Kori), 14 percent Muslims, 12 percent Kurmi, 12 percent Yadav, 12 percent Brahmin, 6 percent Rajpur, 4 percent Vaish, 5 percent Kewat/Mallah/Nisha and 12 percent other OBC.

It is virtually a direct fight between sitting Rajput BJP MP Lallu Singh who faces stiff competition from Prasad. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Brahmin candidate Sachhidanand Pandey has failed to win over even the Brahmins. Belonging to neighbouring Ambedkar Nagar, Pandey is from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and had quit the BJP to join BSP on the eve of elections.

In such a scenario the odds are hugely against veteran BJP leader Lallu Singh. For him to sail through a unified Hindu vote in the name of mandir had been essential which sadly faded away well before the polling date.

In a fire fighting mode the BJP rushed several OBC leaders to Ayodhya to help the BJP candidate. Union minister of state for commerce and industry Anupriya Patel came to placate the Kurmis, traditional BJP supporters who are now angry with the BJP.

The major reason is the inadequate compensation for their land and property demolished for the beautification of the temple city. The sidelining of a towering Kurmi leader of the Ram Mandir movement, four-time MP Vinay Katiyar, has also upset the Kurmi community.

To draw the fisher folk community Sanjay Nishad, President NISHAD party and minister of fisheries in the Yogi government addressed a rally in Bikapur in Faizabad in favour of Lallu Singh.

Keeping the divisive narrative alive at his public meeting in Ayodhya Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had alleged that “the Congress led I.N.D.I.A. would re-imposed jaziya if elected to power”. Strangely these public meetings remained lacklustre.

In contrast, on the last day of campaigning SP president Akhilesh Yadav addressed a massive rally at Milkipur in support of Prasad who represents Milkipur assembly in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha.

Taking no notice of the excessive heat, temperature hovering over 42 degrees centigrade, a record crowd gathered at the meeting ground and an equal number thronged the road outside, nearby buildings and even packed the helipad making it difficult for Akhilesh to take off after the meeting.

A nine-time MLA and senior member in the ministries of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, Prasad is a Dalit contesting from a general seat. “If we have to save the Constitution, save democracy and reservation then we have to defeat the BJP” points out Prasad who claims to enjoy the benevolence of Lord Ram.

According to him Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir is not a matter which is weighing on peoples’ minds at this juncture. “People are more bothered about real issues like skyrocketing inflation, all time high unemployment, stray cattle’s and unproductive farm prices, paper leaks, making day to day life unbearable”.

To outsiders Ayodhya may seem synonymous with the Ram Mandir movement. The consecration of the Ram Temple in January 2024 was believed to be the turning point in the saffron party’s history. It was to have ensured victory not only in the renovated temple town of Ayodhya but to have guaranteed a third term to Narendra Modi.

However, local issues have plainly acquired centre stage in Ayodhya paling the euphoria over the half-constructed mandir. What has agitated a large section of people is the widespread demolition of approximately 2200 shops, 800 houses, 30 temples, nine mosques and six tombs for widening of a 13 kilometre corridor and beautification of the city before the consecration of the temple.

It remains to be seen what finally stimulates the voters, the pride of the Ram Temple, or the promise to address the real issues of survival faced by the most marginalised, unemployment, inequity, discrimination and violence on the basis of caste and religion and the guarantee of a caste census.