AYODHYA, India (AP) — Under grey skies, construction cranes towered over laborers building a mega three-story temple demanded by millions of Hindus for over 100 years. The shrine is dedicated to their most revered god, Ram, and is being built on a plot of land where a 16th-century mosque stood, before a Hindu mob tore it down in 1992.
It's one of several frenetic constructions — massive roads, hotels and a swanky new railway station — underway in Ayodhya, a dusty, holy city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking reelection by touting Hindu-first politics coupled with economic prosperity.
This was the first sign of progress Manish Yadav, a 25-year-old student, had seen in this once-sleepy city.
Modi's BJP has won emphatically twice on the national stage. But the state polls in Uttar Pradesh – India’s most populous with over 230 million people – are crucial, a barometer of the party’s popularity ahead of general elections in 2024. Over 150 million people will vote in the state across seven phases starting Thursday before results are declared in March. Four other states will also vote in February and March — the BJP is fighting to retain power in all but one.
“We need Ayodhya to be a success. We need companies to come and invest, we need factories, technical colleges, institutes and jobs here so people don’t leave,” said Yadav. He said he voted for the BJP in 2019 because it promised to build the temple, and "now we need more.”
Uttar Pradesh is currently governed by the BJP’s Yogi Adityanath, a polarizing Hindu monk turned politician. Yadav said the government has failed to provide him – and millions like him – jobs. Still, he will vote for them again.
The BJP’s answer appears to be infrastructure, including mammoth expressways and airports to boost connectivity and tourism. But analysts are doubtful whether huge public spending on such projects is enough to kickstart growth in Uttar Pradesh, a largely poor and agrarian state where joblessness is rising.
Under Adityanath, youth unemployment has increased fivefold, according to economist Santosh Mehrotra, who analyzed national labor data.
The BJP, however, has made grand promises. It says it will attract investment, provide free electricity for farmers and generate jobs for 20 million people, but has provided few details.
It is also wooing voters with welfare measures, doubling free rations for the poor and a tough stance on crime.
But the party’s core Hindu nationalist agenda is unmissable. In December, Modi took a dip in the Ganges River before thousands after he inaugurated a $45 million corridor that connects two iconic religious sites in the state. Such events, analysts say, have turned temple inaugurations into political spectacles that drive focus away from pressing issues.
“There is a limit to how much employment and development you can create around a temple,” Mehrohtra said.
The big-ticket projects, which deftly mix religion and infrastructure, are aimed at pleasing the BJP’s Hindu base amid reports of discontent among key voters. The party won in the state last time by consolidating Hindu votes across castes. But multiple defections to the opposition Samajwadi Party, whose secular appeal has swayed voters from a wide range of castes as well as the Muslim community, have raised uncertainties.
Farmers, an influential voting bloc, are still furious at Modi for pushing agriculture laws that triggered a year-long protest before he bowed to the pressure and revoked them in November. The BJP is also facing allegations of Covid-19 mismanagement in the state after a calamitous surge in infections last year saw numerous corpses floating in the Ganges.