A shopkeeper in the primarily Muslim locality of Benia Bagh, Farooq is simply peddling the line of the party that he supports: the Congress. But it has also become the standard analysis for politicians, journalists and, it seems, practically everyone else, as Varanasi has become intensely political over the last few weeks.
Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate — whose previous innings have been spent batting for other parties, including the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party — was supposed to come with baggage and a support base too. In the traditional Uttar Pradesh way of approaching politics, the caste breakdown that Rai might have been able to attract was key to his success.
But that seems to no longer be true. Rai is a Bhumihar Brahmin, member of an influential community that includes between 1.5 lakh and 1.75 lakh voters who are also his primary support base. It was expected that this group might travel with him to whichever party he contests for, since neither the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi nor the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal are from that caste.
Since this wouldn’t be enough to beat Modi, Rai pitched himself desperately as the candidate who could also win over Varanasi’s 3 lakh Muslims. The Congress path to the city’s Muslims appeared to run through Mukhtar Ansari, a politician from the Qaumi Ekta Dal, who also happens to be in jail for the alleged murder of Krishnanand Rai — Ajay’s cousin.
Ansari managed to come in second place to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections five years ago on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, losing by just 17,000 votes. That led some analysts to believe that he holds the key to the Muslim vote. However, in the assembly polls in 2012, Ansari, no longer benefiting from the dalit-Muslim backing of the BSP, received a much smaller share of the vote.
The Congress is said to have pulled strings in approaching Ansari, and persuaded him to support Rai’s candidature. But that move might have ended up making life more difficult for Rai. The Bhumihars are appalled that Rai would accept support from a man who killed his own cousin, a position made worse when the widow of the murdered Krishnanand Rai took to a BJP stage to bemoan Ajay Rai’s betrayal of her husband’s memory.
Bereft of the Rais, and concerned that the sundry other castes will be divided among the SP, the BSP and the AAP, the Congress has turned its focus entirely on the 3 lakh Muslim voters of Varanasi.
“No aam party can stop that man," said K Rahman Khan, Minority Affairs minister at a jansabha in a Muslim quarter in the city on Monday night. "No other party can stop him from recreating the 'Gujarat model'. Only one party has proved its might in taking on the BJP, the party that knows this country and has run it for so many years.”
Khan is one of three ministers the Congress has dispatched to Varanasi in the last few days, the only campaigners for Ajay Rai who appear to be out on the streets. The other two, as might be expected of the Congress, are External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad — both Muslim as well.
Across town, the Aam Aadmi Party has been appealing to Muslims as well.
Late on Tuesday evening, with the temperatures finally low enough for an outdoors meeting, AAP supporters began shuffling into the house of Dr Mobin Ansari in Friends Colony, a suburban area north of the traditional Varanasi sheher.
The meeting was to take place in a makeshift courtyard, a small walled expanse behind the house with just the sky and the stars above. Abdullah Khan, one of the first few speakers, appealed directly to the mostly Muslim audience.
“We made a mistake in Delhi,” Khan said, speaking for his community. “We didn’t understand then what AAP was. We didn’t understand Kejriwal. We didn’t vote the way we should have. If we had AAP would have got more than 40 seats, and the problems Delhi is now having would not have been there. Banaras should not repeat Delhi’s mistake.”
Then Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Anand Kumar, a National Executive member of the AAP, stood up. “Banarasis have made a few bad choices of late, from the [BJP] mayor to the [BJP] Member of Parliament,” Kumar said. “Maybe it comes from eating too much paan or bhang.”
In the stirring speech that followed, Kumar referenced Raj Narain — the Janata Party politician from Banaras whose defeat of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set off the Emergency — and Kashi Nath Singh, the author of the famous Kashi ke Assi and an old communist whose family, Kumar said, would all be voting for the AAP.
“They ask us if Arvindji will leave Banaras after the election and go back to Delhi," Kumar said. "Arvind Kejriwal is the just name of an imaandar aadmi with a white topi. He could be anyone of you. In the last few weeks, more than 1,200 volunteers from this city have signed up for the white topi, more than any other party. So is there any need to ask if Kejriwal will still be here after the elections?”
The rest of the night, low-key but star-studded, alternated between appeals directly to Muslims and calls for a grander AAP vision. At one point, the Sheher-e-Mufti, the city’s chief cleric, Abdul Batin Nomani made an appearance. Former anchor and AAP Lok Sabha candidate Ashutosh recounted the history of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the audience. Delhi MLA and ex-minister Manish Sisodia, however, asked the gathering not to think of beating Narendra Modi through Kejriwal.
“People will keep discussing who can win and who can defeat whom. I want you to ask yourself, when you vote, have I voted for an imaandar aadmi? Don’t ask yourself who is best placed to beat anyone, just be sure that when you vote, you have done so for a good man.”
To be sure, Kejriwal is going after the Muslim community as much as the Congress is. He has sought and obtained endorsements from the Sheher-e-Mufti and the Sheher Qazi, two of the most important clerics of Banaras as well as, most recently, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. And his campaign’s focus in the city has been on mixed and Muslim neighbourhoods.
This has created the impression that both the parties that could pose a challenge to Modi are only looking to court the Muslims. Varanasi has turned into a Modi vs Muslims battle, the narrative suggests, and the fight is between Kejriwal and Rai for the minority vote.
But if traditional political analysis is accurate, this battle is zero-sum.
Tradition holds that Muslim voters pick their candidates tactically and then vote en masse. The decision, it is said, is taken in the final 72 hours and then spread across the community. As of Wednesday, the winds seem favourable to Kejriwal, whose party has by far been the more energetic, vocal and visible.
The only potential spanner in these works could come from an indication that one of the Congress’ senior leaders, such as Rahul Gandhi, might turn up in the city and take on Narendra Modi directly. Coupled with the outreach from the Muslim ministers, this might at the least confuse the voters.
Either way, if the community is set to vote en masse, all Kejriwal can do is show that he is the one most likely to beat Modi — something the party is planning to project via a massive road show slated for May 9, the second-last day of campaigning.
But while the media, and even the BJP and RSS, have dismissed the AAP as a party that is out only to court the minority, an entirely different undercurrent is emerging out of the countryside and starting to spillover into the city.
Farooq, the shopkeeper in Benia Bagh, might have felt that Kejriwal will not pick off votes because he has no biradari on his side here. But the opposite is beginning to happen: voters from across communities are starting to jump on the jhaadu bandwagon, precisely because Kejriwal has no caste-community baggage.
“Even in BJP ke ghar, strongholds, they are starting to make inroads,” said AK Lari, the Resident Editor of the Jan Sandesh Times, in Varanasi. “If the RSS guys are knocking on doors at 7 am, the AAP people are going even before at 6, at the risk of annoying the people by waking them up. But they are making an impression.”
Leaving aside from the traditional Bania votebank of the BJP, as well as the Brahmins who have always supported the party in Varanasi, voters from across communities are starting to warm up to a party that was dismissed just a little while ago as an unpopular export from Delhi. The votes will come from unexpected places, making it hard to gauge how substantial the support is.
Some families are split, with youngsters expected to vote for the AAP while the elders will stick with the BJP — a growing trend that even RSS pracharaks, in their bluster, will acknowledge. “In one of the villages, almost every single person is voting for Modi,” said Rajnish Singh, an RSS worker. “Except for one family, where the son has insisted he will vote for AAP. We had to push the elders of the whole village to tell that boy that he will be hurting them by voting for Kejriwal.”
Elsewhere, the poor, the dalits and the other backwards classes are usually split between the SP, BSP and Left parties. The Janata Dal (United), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) have extended their support to the AAP and are even canvassing for them, while the poor and dalits are taking note of the complete silence of the SP and BSP candidates.
“To me there is no difference between haathi and jhaadu,” said Viradas, a dalit sweeper who lives in Varanasi’s Kabir Muth. “Kejriwal will do for us what she [BSP chief Mayawati] does for us. Our community always votes for the haathi and this time when I vote for Kejriwal, I will still be voting for the haathi.”
Lari, the journalist, even thinks Kejriwal is breaking into the Bania votes because some are worried the BJP might flip-flop on its policy against foreign direct investment in retail, the opening of which would hurt their businesses.
There is nothing in particular about Varanasi that makes it a likely candidate to become an AAP seat. As in most parts of the country, the problems are straightforward: bijli, paani, sadak and an inept, inefficient and corrupt state. Thus far, it has reflected its caste composition, electing a BJP mayor three terms in a row and a BJP member of parliament four of the last five elections.
But this time, it seems the energy of its volunteers and Kejriwal’s ability to win over voters has allowed the AAP to make inroads into a seat that the BJP hopes will be the launchpad for its resurgence across India’s biggest state.
If it is to have any chance of winning from Varanasi, the AAP has to win the Muslim vote, which explains the media focus on the minority. But even if the final tactical decision for the Muslims ends up being Ajay Rai, the AAP’s ability to make inroads across caste lines represents an equally significant development in a fight that is nowhere near finished.