“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.”