Banaras Diary

Intellectuals from around India flock to Varanasi to join campaign against Modi

However, they aren't certain which candidate to support.

Arjun was unhappy. He had just agreed vehemently with the people marching past him down Varanasi’s Sant Kabir Road, around the corner from the poet-saint’s shrine. He had grabbed a copy of a pamphlet with anti-communal propaganda that was being handed out and promptly nodded along when the marchers sang the Leftist anthem, Tu Zinda Hai. Arjun even added his voice to the chants of "fasiwadi murdabad" (down with the fascists). But his question to the crowd went unanswered.

“I don’t understand what the whole point of this is if they can’t give me one name of someone who can defeat Modi,” Arjun said.

Indeed, for a crowd full of intellectuals who don’t usually have difficulty giving answers — from economist Jean Dreze to civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad and filmmaker Anusha Rizvi — that one query hung over the group like a dark cloud: “Who can defeat Narendra Modi?”

By choosing to contest from Varanasi, which holds primary position in the pantheon of Hindu holy places, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate was tapping into strains of religious tradition as well as political ones that draw from Uttar Pradesh’s history.

But for those opposed to him, Varanasi has also become the site of something of a final stand, both because the elections here take place on the very last day of the month-long exercise and also because Modi's critics hope to draw from the city’s history of pluralistic leaders.

Earlier in the day, the intellectuals had traipsed into Kabir Chaura Mutt, the temple-complex that was built on the site where the 15th century saint would lecture the residents of Kashi on the need to break free of dogma. Most of the visitors were in Varanasi at the behest of the local unit of the Progressive Writers’ Association, founded by radical Urdu writers in Lucknow in the 1930s.

But their day-long discussions around the statues of Kabir that dot the Mutt focused more on why Modi ought to be defeated than on who might be able to do it. “Kashi may have helped grow Hinduism, but it has never supported Hindutva,” said Kashinath Singh, the star attraction at the convention. His book Kashi ka Assi paints a portrait of the ordinary people who populate the holy city. “A win for Modi will mean a historic defeat for the city of Kashi," he said.

From references to fascism and Nazis to a nukkad natak (street play), albeit one that was taking place within the complex, the convention featured all the mainstays of radical campaigns — except an appeal on behalf of a specific candidate.

The problem isn’t the lack of an option, it’s that there are too many. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party both have candidates in the fray who have vowed to defeat Modi, but the real contenders remain the Congress’ local man Ajay Rai and the Aam Aadmi Party’s head and ex-Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

If all the voters opposed to Modi pick any one of the two, there would be a serious chance of the BJP losing the seat. But as long as they remain divided, the BJP’s workers are taking bets on how big Modi’s winning margin will be rather than whether he will take home the crown.

Participants at the convention had deliberately chosen not to tell people whom to vote for, a decision civil rights activist Setalvad defended. “It’s a tricky situation, with a multi-cornered contest,” she said. “If the politicians here can’t decide how to go about it, why are you expecting intellectuals to do that? It’s not for a platform like this to decide who should be picked.”

But the lack of consensus even within a group of activists who have flocked to Varanasi from across the country just to campaign against Modi is telling.

“I get the feeling that people are coming together in support of Arvind Kejriwal,” said Akbar Chawdhury, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. “Consensus seems to be building.”

Others thought that endoring the Congress would be inevitable.

Across the city, the political discussions have now turned to who is fighting to be number two, with Modi as the frontrunner. Most of those who want to keep him out are pinning their hopes on the tradition of tactical voting: a community-wide decision in the last few days about which candidate to support as a means of ensuring there is no split. The NoMore campaign, which aims to present this decision ahead of each voting day, is expected to release its preferred candidate sometime mid-week.

“The people of Banaras will see who is the strongest, who is the most likely to beat Narendra Modi and they will vote for him,” said Sanjay Srivastava, one of the convention’s organisers. “You will see, just as there might be a Modi wave, there is an anti-Modi wave and that will become apparent right before the election. One person will picked, and the people of Banaras will choose him.”

The crux remains Varanasi’s three lakh Muslim voters, and both Kejriwal and Rai have focused their last few days of campaigning on this community. With just a few days, until the election on May 12, there is little sign of which way that decision will go — or indeed whether it will be made at all.

Back at the Kabir Mutt, the anti-Modi convention was drawing to a close with a Dastangoi performance that was eventually drowned out by the sounds of a Zee News crew setting up a stage with a pretend paanwala for a Banarasi political debate.

“The local organisers have told us that, even though we haven’t picked one person or we haven’t campaigned outside much, having all of us together in one place is worrying the BJP,” said Reetika Khera, a professor from IIT-Delhi, as the convention was coming to a close. “But I think they’re just saying that to keep us happy.”
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Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

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