The buildings that dot the ghats, most built in the 18th century after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had flattened the city 50 years before, are literally from another time — giving Mark Twain fodder for the most famous quote about the city, that it is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
But while this might not be evident from the quiet solitude of the river, every occasional boat full of saffron topi-wearers yelling “Har Har Modi” reminds you that change is afoot. Thanks to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s presidential-style campaign and the Aam Aadmi Party’s emergence on the national scene, it might not be entirely hyperbolic to assert that this one Lok Sabha seat will have a huge impact on the remaining 542 (plus two).
1. NaMo NaMo
The BJP’s candidate, Narendra Modi, is in the lead. Most of his party members think it is an unassailable one, considering Varanasi’s long history of electing BJP members of parliament. But this will be no ordinary BJP MP.
Modi has been nominated the party’s prime ministerial candidate, a post that should be his, if most opinion polls are anything to go by — although after the 2004 and 2009 results (or even the 2012 Uttar Pradesh polls), their credibility remains in doubt.
He is also contesting from Vadodara, in his home state of Gujarat, but he will have to win from Uttar Pradesh — which has sent the most number of PMs to Delhi — if he wants to earn the legitimacy that he put at stake by contesting from here. Winning would solidify his stature as a contender even outside Gujarat, and give him a platform to assume a national leadership position, even if it’s in the opposition.
If Modi ends up winning both seats, he is unlikely to abandon Varanasi. “The only thing that is hurting [AAP’s Arvind] here Kejriwal is his resignation from the Delhi chief minister post, that’s why he is called bhagoda (deserter),” said Satish, a resident of Sigra. “Can you imagine how that will backfire on Modi if he gives Banaras up instead of Baroda?”
2. The Kashi Model of development
Modi’s campaign has attempted to keep the focus on development over the course of the last year (with several significant digressions from this path wherever polarisation may have been needed). This relentless harping on development has also hopefully meant that he will be judged by the same yardstick, and where better to do that than his own presumptive constituency?
Varanasi has seen outsiders make lots of promises and achieve little, including the incumbent BJP MP, Murli Manohar Joshi. Because of its status as a spot of pilgrimage for Hindus and its reputation as a cultural capital, it continually attracts VIPs from across the country. Yet it is in a state of decay, with rubbish littering the streets and industry disappearing.
“You see this lane here? It is used by every VIP who comes down here, anytime someone big dies,” said Sushil Kapuria, who lives on the path leading down to Manikarnika ghat, one of the most sought after sites for Hindu cremations. “We haven’t had anyone improve it for 30 years now. I have had to put my own money and get cement to keep it useable.”
This makes Varanasi the perfect place to put to test Modi’s grand claims of scaling up Gujarat’s development to include in all of India. If he can’t make much headway, his future appeal to voters might be in serious doubt. Any hint of Hindu majoritarianism or communal violence around Varanasi will, of course, also attract huge amounts of attention.
3. Winning over the heartland
They seem coached to say this as if it is an actual answer to the question. Why is Modi fighting from two constituencies? “You see once Modiji wins from here, we want to make gains in eastern UP and then, maybe even win back the whole state,” said Karthik, a Bangalore techie campaigning in Varanasi as part of Modi’s India272 team.
While this doesn’t address why Modi had to fight in Vadodara as well, it is clearly a signal of the BJP’s ambitions in India’s biggest state. These might be fanciful right now, what with the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party still fighting despite setbacks, but being in power at the Centre gives parties additional benefits.
Moreover, the BJP has been working to win back some of the other backward classes votes it lost to other parties over the course of the 1990s. The tie-up with Kurmi/Patel-based Apna Dal in Mirzapur, which adjoins Varanasi, is just one indication of what is surely a larger plan.
If the BJP is able to make substantial gains in UP, both at the Lok Sabha and at the Vidhan Sabha levels — something the Congress has unsuccessfully been trying for a while — it could change the nature of Indian politics for some time to come.
4. Arvind vs Goliath
All of the above presumes Modi will win Varanasi. But what if he doesn’t?
Late on Sunday night, before Monday’s election, residents of the Muslim-dominated area of Madanpura were out on the streets discussing whom to vote for. “Don’t give your vote to anyone but Arvind Kejriwal,” Mohammed Ibrahim, a local businessman, was telling everyone he saw. “A vote for [Congress’] Ajay Rai is a wasted vote. You want to waste that?”
To win, Kejriwal will have to win a hefty portion of the 3 lakh Muslim votes in the constituency while also hoping that all the campaigning he did in the villages and poorer communities will translate into votes.
If he somehow manages this and ends up beating Narendra Modi, he will definitively establish himself as a giant killer, send the message that there is no safe seat anywhere in the country, and cement his position as a leader of national stature. There would also be the pure spectacle of having Kejriwal in Parliament.
But even if he doesn’t win — and there were those who insisted until the very end that he would come third place to the Congress’ Ajay Rai — any measure of AAP’s success in this seat, soaked as it is in BJP politics, will be a sign of the party’s potency outside its Delhi base.
5. The resistance
Varanasi is used to playing host to all sorts of people, but even by its standards, the last few weeks have been special. Hundreds of volunteers from across the country poured in to take part in campaigns, while anyone else interested in politics — whether it was Madhu Kishwar or Teesta Setalvad — tried to make a pitstop before the polls. This special attention is not going to just disappear after the elections.
Any failure in governance in the city could easily become a national headline, whether Modi or Kejriwal wins. It also means any opposition to either of the two — both politicians whose bases are elsewhere — will end up flowing through Varanasi.
“Why don’t we set up a group here in Banaras?” said Sanjeeev, an activist from Sangharsh, at a meeting of representatives from people’s movements in the city before the elections. “Why don’t we start by taking on all the movements here first, and then bring in the rest of UP and, eventually, the rest of the country?”
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