When Narendra Modi decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi in 2014, residents of the pilgrimage site in Uttar Pradesh welcomed him as one of their own. There was all-round excitement that a prime ministerial candidate had chosen this ancient city on the banks of the Ganga as his constituency.

Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, was hailed as a strong, decisive leader as well as an able administrator. Conversations in the streets of Varanasi invariably dwelt on how Modi’s Gujarat model of development had changed the face of his home state, giving it 24-hour power supply, a network of roads and increased economic activity. People were convinced that the city would undergo a sea change if it was represented by the country’s prime minister. Few, if any, spoke of him in the context of his Hindutva politics – at least not overtly.

Almost three years later, conversations in the streets and mohallas of Varanasi have changed. The Modi magic is still strong but today, the discussions invariably veer towards the prime minister being a protector of the Hindu faith and a leader set to unite the majority community. Unlike in 2014, residents of the city do not hesitate to speak of his Hindutva agenda with great pride.

The message that the Hindus are facing an identity crisis and need to act on it, as indicated by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been effectively absorbed by people here.

Talk of the town

“It is a myth that the people of Varanasi voted for Modi because of his administrative abilities or his decisive leadership,” said Kaushal Kishore Mishra, head of department of political science, Benaras Hindu University. “They voted for him because he does not wear a skull cap and does not organise iftar parties. Instead he wears a rudraksha, fasts on Navratri, invokes the names of Ram and Shiva – all this appeals to Hindu sentiment.”

A student in the bylanes of the famous Assi Ghat, popular among tourists and pilgrims, spoke in the same vein. Even as a motley crowd of locals at the famous Pappu chai shop here were having an animated discussion on Modi’s leadership qualities, Ratnesh Chaturvedi interrupted them. “People may say anything about Modi’s work but the fact is that people like him because he is speaking about the Hindu faith,” Chaturvedi said. “He is the only leader talking about the protection of the Hindus. So what if there is no development? In any case nothing has been achieved in the last 60 years.”

With his comment, the conversation took a new turn. All those who had been referring to Modi’s virtues as a “vikas purush” or development man promptly changed tack. They were also quick to defend the prime minister’s controversial kabristan-shamshan remarks. At a rally in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh on February 19, Modi had said that if a village has a graveyard, it should also have a cremation ground. The comment was criticised as being of a piece with the BJP’s communal strategy in the Hindi heartland state.

“There’s nothing wrong with his statement,” said Mukesh Singh, one of the locals gathered at the tea stall. “We need polarising statements like this to ensure there is no division among the Hindus.”

Vijay Arora, a doctor, chimed in. “Look at the land Muslims have been allotted for kabristans while we Hindus have only two shamshan ghats,” he said. “Hindus are in a majority in Uttar Pradesh but when you see the budget, you find that the funds allocated for the development of kabristans is double than that provided for our shamshans.”

Mishra of the Benaras Hindu University maintained that Modi’s statement was especially meant for the people of Varanasi as people from all over the country come here to perform the last rites of their family members. This is why this comment resonated with residents, he said.

Modi campaigning in Varanasi ahead of the 2014 elections. Roberto Schmidt/AFP

Mind the gap

With Hindutva politics taking centrestage, it is not surprising that the Hindu-Muslim divide in Varanasi, known for its composite and pluralistic culture, has widened. Though the minorities have never trusted or supported the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the elections in Uttar Pradesh underway, there is a growing fear among Muslims that their religious identity and rights are in danger.

Activist Ateeq Ansari said that when Modi decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi in 2014, the minorities were not worried. “The general view was: what will the BJP or Modi do if they win the seat?” he said. “This was based on their experience with the earlier BJP governments and their leaders. But there is a difference this time. The Muslims always disliked the BJP but now they are both angry and afraid.”

The community is particularly upset with Modi’s kabristan-shamshan remarks, stating unequivocally that he had made this statement deliberately to create a communal divide. “Look at the language used by him…he is , after all, the country’s prime minister and not of a section of people, “ said Shiraq, who owns a guest house in Varansi. His friend Sadiq Ali remarked caustically that such statements were ways to deflect attention from the fact criticism Modi is facing for not delivering on his promises to improve the infrastructure in Varanasi as its elected representative.

Bitter about how the temperament and mood in the city has changed since Modi came to power, Abdul Ansari, a resident of Madanpura, said, “Today when a Hindu speaks against the Modi government, he is called anti-national and if a Muslim criticizes it, he is labeled a terrorist.”

Though Modi’s remains as popular as ever among Hindus in the city, it is also a fact that the BJP is facing an uphill task in at least three of the five assembly segments of the Varanasi assembly constituency.

A combination of factors – the near consolidation of minorities towards the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance, poor selection of candidates by the BJP and rebellion in its ranks – is working to against the saffron party in the Varanasi North, South and Cantonment constituencies.

Realising the oarty has a difficult task at hand, BJP President Amit Shah set up base in Varanasi nearly two weeks before the region goes to polls on March 8 and a host of Central ministers and party leaders have made visits to the city.

“It is vital for the BJP to win in Varanasi,” Mishra said. “It is a matter of personal prestige for Modi. How will it look if the party wins in Uttar Pradesh but loses here? It will reflect poorly on Modi. Don’t forget, it is not the BJP but Modi who is contesting elections here.”

BJP leaders and some residents are convinced that Modi’s rally here on Sunday will change the mood in favour of the saffron party.

“Just wait for the magic man,” said Vishal Prasad, a businessman. “It is always the case here…till election-eve there is a buzz that the Congress is winning but when the results are announced, it is the BJP which emerges victorious.”