“Don’t worry, babu,” a rickshaw puller in Teliyabagh said after I asked why it had gotten so quiet. “It’s only the outsiders who have left. The Banarasis will come out in the evening.” Sure enough, once the temperatures dropped and the winds from the river started blowing in, people came onto the streets in droves. And, as has been the case for some time now, everywhere you went people were talking politics.
Yet, the silence of the morning was also telling. Varanasi has been the subject of intense political focus ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi announced that he would be contesting from here, followed soon enough by a similar decision by Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal. The hype has been so insistent that one local reporter claimed the political race was the greatest thing to happen in Banaras since the founding of Sanatan Dharma, more than two millenia ago.
Over the past two weeks, this has meant that volunteers from across the country have descended on the city to knock on doors, hand out campaign material and yell slogans. On Saturday, as the code of conduct shut down the campaign, police methodically went to hotels across this city — which, as one of the country's most important pilgrimage sites, is full of them — and told the owners to evict anyone who isn’t a voter. By Sunday morning, the city felt emptier.
Come Monday, however, and the streets were full again — this time with locals. It might not have been impressive compared to the record figures being posted nationally, but Varanasi managed to record a 55.29% voter turnout; a huge jump from the 42% that was recorded five years ago.
Jagrukta was what Sarfaraz Nawaz, a maker of saris in the old city, called it. A feeling that the city’s voters have woken up. “And this isn’t a Hindu-Muslim thing,” Nawaz said. “Even if most of the politicians ended up talking about Hindu-Muslim issues rather than development or corruption, these crowds on the streets, in the booths, are here because they want to use the one thing that they own: their vote.”
The thrill of ink
Across town, this was apparent even if it was only demonstrated by people complaining that their names weren’t on the list — often, as polling agents tried to calmly explain to those insisting they wanted to exercised their franchise, because they had simply not put submitted the requisite documents beforehand.
“Lots of people are complaining that their names are not there, that this is discrimination,” said Ahmed, a booth agent in the Madanpura area. “But when you ask them, they usually didn’t get the ID made. Still, there are quite a few instances where they have IDs and still something is wrong.”
Wherever you looked along the old city, crowds gathered to discuss how the race would turn out — and to casually ridicule those who hadn’t voted. The fallout of having a the highest of high-profile races in town has meant many more have found themselves involved in a process that they might have otherwise ignored.
But will this awareness, this jagrukta, last? Fifty-five per cent might have come out to vote, but that leaves 45 per cent out (a point made by Varanasi mainstay Amitabh Bhattacharya the day before, insisting that only an 80 per cent figure would be a true indicator of the desire for change). And while politics might have been all people were talking about the day before, they can very easily move on.
“See, I had never gotten involved before. Never gone to see a roadshow or rally, never called my aunts and uncles and asked them to register. So it has brought in people,” said Nawaz, the sari maker. “But you come here tomorrow, and people will be back focusing on their work, because rozi roti [earning your daily bread] is a bigger problem than politics.”
Even if the election wasn’t fought over local issues, there is little doubt that the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat will be playing a crucial role in national elections. Most exit polls out on Monday suggested the BJP would be in a position to form the government, which would make Varanasi’s likely representative the prime minister.
But, as people keep pointing out, there’s nothing new about having a BJP Member of Parliament from here. It might give the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing organisation that forms part of the BJP’s family, a boost if Modi wins but that wouldn’t change things substantially in a place where they’re already strong.
The question is what happens to the hundreds of people who only started to pay attention because the Aam Aadmi Party entered the fray. Even if they lose, the AAP can consider Varanasi a success story, because they started out nowhere and quickly found themselves in play for second place. But if they do lose, where does that leave supporters who were invigorated by the appearance of this unusual import from Delhi? It’s important to remember that the AAP has almost no presence anywhere else in Uttar Pradesh and a loss for Kejriwal will certainly mean the party reducing its focus on a constituency far away from its base in the capital.
If those who shed their usual caste, community and religion identifiers to vote for the AAP end up being disappointed by both Kejriwal’s loss and the party abandoning Varanasi to the BJP, it could only reinforce the shoot-and-scoot image the party earned after giving up power in Delhi.
Varanasi was that rare thing in Indian politics: two leaders of political parties taking each other head on. Leaving it to the BJP could mean condemning the city to the same fate as the strongholds of Amethi and Rae Bareli. It could be used as a stick to beat the leaders in the headlines every couple of years, but not in a way that meaningfully improves the lives of its residents.
“You want to be optimistic, you want to think this is not just for this election,” said Ajay Pandey, a shop-tender near Benia Bagh. “But the politicians, they come, say namaste and go. Why should this time be any different?"
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