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Mathura: Disenchantment Over Unemployment, Inflation, Hema Malini, But Brand Modi and Mandir Shine

Sravasti Dasgupta
Apr 23, 2024
As the BJP places the Ayodhya Ram Temple at the centre of its campaign, its old slogan of “Kashi-Mathura ab baqi hai” looms in Mathura,

Mathura (Uttar Pradesh): As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) place the Ram Temple in Ayodhya at the centre of their campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura – the site of another looming temple-mosque dispute – locals are raising questions of unemployment, inflation and disenchantment over “missing” MP Hema Malini’s third successive candidature even as brand Modi remains intact.

Mathura will vote on April 26 along with seven other seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Ajit Yadav, who hails from Firozabad, has been living in the temple town of Mathura since 2008 and works in a shop selling prayer materials at the Krishna Janmasthan Temple Complex. On Saturday, Yadav picks up a copy of a newspaper and shows an article quoting a statement by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath that states in Hindi:  “Hum 80 crore ko muft ration de rahe, Pakistan bhooka mar raha (We are providing free ration to 80 crore people, Pakistan is dying of hunger).”

“Inflation is only increasing, but they are talking about dharm ki rajneeti (politics of religion) and Pakistan,” he said to The Wire, pointing to the newspaper.

Yadav said that he owns land back in his village which helps him make ends meet, as his salary at the shop barely covers his expenses.

“I make Rs 10,000 per month, my house rent is Rs 5,000. I have two school-going children, one in the first standard and the other in upper KG. Just their school and study material comes to about Rs 12,000 a month, in a government school. If I did not have my land, I would not have been able to survive on this salary alone. But they (politicians) are only doing dharm ki rajneeti and not talking about mehegai (price rise),” he said.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

While Modi and the BJP are using the inauguration of the Ayodhya Ram Temple – the culmination of a long drawn political project of the Sangh parivar – as a major poll plank in these elections, legal battles are also underway at the other two mosques claimed by the proponents of Hindutva – the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura which lies adjacent to the Krishna Janmasthan Temple Complex.

Following the pran pratishtha ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya in January, the Sangh parivar’s old slogan of Ayodhya-Babri sirf jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura ab baqi hai (Ayodhya and Babri were trailers, Kashi and Mathura are still left)” also returned, with Union ministers joining the chorus.

Last week, the Supreme Court extended its stay on the Allahabad high court’s order allowing for a court-monitored “scientific survey” of the Shahi Idgah mosque.

A row of shops line the Krishna Janmasthan Temple Complex on one side, selling prayer wares and devotional material. When The Wire visited the site on Saturday afternoon, a long line of devotees had queued up in the scorching afternoon sun, waiting for the temple to open at 4 pm.

Devotees waiting under shade for the temple to open. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

Murari Lal Agarwal, who works at the shop next to Yadav’s, makes Rs 6,000 a month for his family of six, said that he sees no point in going to vote this time.

“I am not going to vote. They are only talking about mandir and masjid and not about rising prices. Dal (Pulses) was Rs 50 just some years ago, now it is Rs 100. Vegetables for even one meal are not available for Rs 100 now,” he said.

About 20 km away from Mathura city, a group of labourers near Raya panchayat, working as farm labourers next to the national highway, are having lunch. Kushal Chaudhary, who supervises the labourers’ work and is a farmer himself, said that the only issues in the election are unemployment and price rise.

“Look at the scale of inflation. Nobody has jobs. Where will our children go? Will they study and then sit at home? Because of paper leaks, government recruitment exams are also cancelled. Where are the jobs?” he asked.

According to Chaudhary, the inauguration of the Ram Temple has no bearing on the elections.

“It is fine that the temple (Ayodhya) has been built, it is a matter of people’s faith. But what about unemployment and the issues that people are facing?”

The Krishna Janmasthan temple complex. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

Modi’s mandir politics

While the BJP’s open use of religion in its poll campaign, a violation of the Model Code of Conduct, has received pushback from the opposition and critics, it is this use of religion that has deepened Modi’s allure for voters in Mathura – a seat that the BJP has held since 2014.

Devesh Jain, a shop owner at the Temple Complex, said that the Ram Temple is a “big issue”.

“Modi has brought vikas, and he has ended Islamic terrorism. See the roads anywhere in the country, they are better than ever. And the Ram Temple is also a major issue. Ayodhya is done and Kashi and Mathura will also be done very soon,” he said.

According to Jain, every masjid in the country has been built by destroying a mandir – a claim that is often repeated by the RSS.

“Why are masjids so tall? Have you thought about it? Because all these masjids have been built over temples that have been destroyed,” he said.

Among the devotees waiting for the temple to open on Saturday was Ravindra Pal, who has been living in Mumbai for 27 years, working as an auto driver.

Pal, who originally hails from Varanasi, said that he does not find anything wrong in the Mandir being a poll plank as it is “a part of vikas” under Modi.

“Modi takes the country along with him and always puts dharm (faith) first,” he said.

“In the last ten years he has done vikas for the country and this is a part of vikas. When he talks about building the Ram Temple it is not just about religion but it is a part of vikas. He works in favour of the country and this is a part of that.”

Behind the Krishna Janmasthan Temple Complex lies the Shahi Idgah mosque. A group of policemen sit behind a barricade barring outsiders from entering the area. Only locals are allowed inside the narrow lane leading up to the mosque.

“They are raking up the issue of the mosque being built over the mandir only for votes,” said Kamruddin as he walked out from behind the barricade to go for his evening namaz. “Somehow or the other they want to get votes. Here everyone lives peacefully.”

According to Dr Zaheer Hasan, president of the Shahi Idgah mosque committee, politics and religion should be separate. “Politics is in its place and religion is in its own place. We should not bring religion into politics. Why can’t politicians talk about Kalidasa, Amir Khusro? Why do they talk about destruction and who killed whom? These are India’s eternal values. Mathura is a land of love of Lord Krishna and Radha.”

In 2021, the Adityanath government banned the sale of meat, eggs, non-vegetarian products and alcohol in 22 wards of Mathura, a move that Hasan said has affected Muslims professionally. “Muslims are also feeling professionally uncomfortable. Poor Muslims have become jobless because of the restrictions on meat trade. I have been living here for 60 years I have never seen Hindus and Muslims fighting over religion. This has been imposed on Mathura. We the people of Mathura should project a message of fellow feeling.”

Disenchantment over Hema Malini

Modi’s brand of vikas also shines for residents in Raal village, located about 20 km outside Mathura city. However, disenchantment is brewing among villagers against the BJP’s candidate, former actor Hema Malini who is the sitting MP and has been fielded for a third consecutive term by the saffron party.

Om Prakash, a retired government school teacher, said that the “whole village will vote for BJP, but with a heavy heart”.

“Hema Malini has been MP for ten years but has visited Mathura only before elections. She has never come to any of our villages. The whole village is unhappy with her candidature once again. We will vote for BJP but with a heavy heart, and not because it is Hema Malini but because of Modi,” he said.

According to Prakash, under Modi, communal riots have stopped in nearby areas of Aligarh and Muzaffarnagar and law and order has improved.

Balram Singh, another retired teacher at the local government school, said that despite the support in the village for Modi, concerns of unemployment remain.

“I watch all the speeches that these big BJP leaders give, whether it is Modi or Amit Shah. In all their speeches, they are abusing the Congress, from the UPA government all the way up to Indira Gandhi and even Jawaharlal Nehru. Are these issues? Children don’t have jobs. Earlier children in our villages would join the armed forces, but now with the Agniveer scheme, they will become jobless in four years. Railway board exams are announced, children buy forms for as much as Rs 1,500 and then exams get cancelled due to paper leaks. We all respect religion, but what next?”

Residents of Raal village. Photo: Sravasti Dasgupta

Mukesh Sharma, who is a member of the Congress, said that he is the only supporter of the grand old party in the village.

“The public is blind. They don’t understand anything any more. Politics of religion has blinded the people of this country and they cannot look at the problems at the unemployment, inflation or even paper leaks,” he said.

According to Prakash, however, while these problems persist, the opposition’s failure in putting up a face that can challenge Modi has also resulted in his widespread support.

“Yes, the problems of unemployment and inflation are very much there but the opposition also has not put up a face that can challenge Modi. Modi cannot be faulted either for not addressing these concerns. If I, as a farmer for instance, employ someone to work on my field and that person does not work properly, it is not my fault. It is the same with Modi,” he said.

The anger against Malini is also echoed by residents in Selkheda village.

Udayveer Singh, a resident in the village, said that while he has been a BJP worker in the past, “there is a lot of anger against the BJP in Mathura because of Hema Malini’s candidature”.

“What has she done in ten years? Ye sainiko ka gaon hai (This is a village of soldiers). Here people are angry with the Agniveer scheme. What are armed forces personnel supposed to do after four years?” he asked.

Introduced on June 14, 2022, under the Agnipath scheme only 25% of recruits, called Agniveers, would be retained while the rest would be released after the completion of their four-year tenure.

‘Gopi ki Krishna’ Hema Malini versus son of soil Mukesh Dhangar

It is this disenchantment with Malini’s candidature, who has called herself “Gopi ki Krishna”, and the Agnipath scheme that the Congress’s candidate Mukesh Dhangar is looking to capitalise on.

Speaking to The Wire while campaigning in Selkheda village, Dhangar said that Malini has not worked for the people of Mathura.

“She has fooled the Brijwasis of Mathura. Mukesh Dhangar is not fighting the elections but each and every Brijwasi is fighting this election,” he said.

Fielded by the Congress only on April 4, Dhangar was named by the grand old party hours after former boxer Vijender Singh joined the BJP. Speculation was rife that Singh, who is a Jat, and had joined the Congress in 2019, would be fielded to take on Malini in Mathura, which has a significant presence of Jats, Thakurs, and Brahmins among its almost 90% Hindu population. But with Singh jumping ship, Dhangar was named. While Malini is not a Mathura resident like Dhangar, she is married to a Jat actor, Dharmendra.

Mukesh Ghangar. Photo: Special arrangement

When asked about how he plans to counter the Modi wave in Mathura, Dhangar said that the youth are disenchanted with the Agniveer scheme.

“About 1.5 lakh youth in Mathura are affected by the Agniveer scheme. They are telling me constantly that you have to win by hook or by crook. They have pushed back against the scheme but still the Modi government has implemented it. If our government is formed we will scrap the scheme immediately.”

Dhangar has pitched his campaign around an insider versus outsider debate and accused the BJP of doing politics over religion among Mathura’s Brijwasi.

“He (Modi) says that he has brought Ram Temple. Can any person bring the Lord? This is playing with people’s faith and playing politics of religion. But people of Mathura have rejected this. This will not work here. You have seen in the last ten years that Malini comes here rarely and when she does, she waves to people and goes. People here had even put posters of the “missing MP”. But now people are aware, and they know that he (referring to himself) is our own and we can make him work and if he doesn’t we can pull him up as well,” he said.

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