The battle for Varanasi: As India goes to polls, can anything stop the Modi wave?

 

Varanasi

It is being called the battle for Kashi. Two weeks before India embarks on a massive, month-long election, one of the most intriguing and closely watched contests is shaping up in the ancient, sacred city of Varanasi.

Earlier this month, Narendra Modi, the controversial opposition leader who many believe could become the nation’s next prime minister, announced that one of two constituencies he will contest will be this crushed, chaotic city alongside the Ganges river.

His intention appears to be twofold: he wants to both associate himself with the city’s venerable Hindu tradition – wrapping himself in a saffron blanket – and boost his party’s chances in other seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is in this vast northern state, with a population of 200 million and which accounts for 80 of parliament’s 543 seats, that Mr Modi’s much talked of “wave” must reveal itself if he is to achieve his ambition.

For a generation, the city said to be 5,000 years old has been a stronghold of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has won five of the last six elections here. The sitting MP, a senior BJP member, was persuaded, not entirely happily, to give up his seat for the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

But for all the effort that will be channelled on the city by Mr Modi and his party in the coming days, it may be that Varanasi does not prove to the simple victory that his supporters assume it will be. The city has a large Muslim population, few of whom are natural supporters of Mr Modi, and this week the leader of a new anti-corruption party announced he too was going to contest in Varanasi to take on Mr Modi head-to-head.

“I am contesting this election to defeat those who are engaged in looting the country,” Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party (AAP), declared at a rally in the city.

For centuries Varanasi has drawn the devout and dying. Hindu tradition has it that the soul of anyone who dies and is cremated here earns instant moksha, or release. Among the numerous ghats, or steps, which line the green-brown water, are those set aside for the burning of bodies. To the devout, the sometimes overwhelming Varanasi is called Kashi – the city of light.

In small shacks that line the time-worn steps, shop-owners make a living selling firewood or else clarified butter, better for ensuring a body thoroughly burns. Throughout the day, at places such as Harishchandra ghat, men descend the steps bearing flower-strewn biers containing corpses of relatives, for cremation next to the water. The ashes are allowed to cool, and then scattered in the Ganges.

Narendra Modi at an election campaign rally near Jammu, India (AP) Narendra Modi at an election campaign rally near Jammu, India (AP)
Close to Harishchandra ghat, a 25-year-old man called Ravi said he made a living as a boatman, carrying either tourists or people wishing to scatter remains from the middle of the river. Born into a caste of boatmen, he said both his father and grandfather had also worked on the water.

The young man said he intended to vote for Mr Modi, having been told by the owner of his boat that he was a good man. And in a city where the roads are broken and water and electricity inconsistent, he had been struck by what he had heard regarding Mr Modi’s record of development in Gujarat, where he has served three terms as chief minister. “Modi has a good record,” said Ravi, who said all his family were voting for the BJP.

A short walk away, a 20-year-old student, Ajay Kumar, said he was also voting for Mr Modi. “There are one or two main problems facing India right now,” said Mr Kumar, whose father farms on the edge of the city. “One is corruption, the other is crime – all these attacks and rapes on women. Kejriwal is a good person but he is not going to win.”

Was this the Modi wave, or lehar, right alongside the flat waters of the Ganges? Perhaps not. Nearby, Ziaul Qadar Khan, a Muslim shopkeeper who was bathing in the river, claimed very few members of his community would vote for a man still tarnished by the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

“Some members of the Shia community might vote for him. But not many,” said Mr Khan, who said he would likely vote for Mr Kejriwal.

Any Indian election is a window into the deep ocean of religions, tribes, castes and ethnicity that still often guide the way a person lives, and votes, particularly outside of the major cities. In addition to Mr Modi’s BJP, Mr Kejriwal’s AAP and the Congress party, which currently controls the federal government, three other parties will be vying for large chunks of Varanasi’s 1.6 million voters.

The Socialist Party (SP), which runs the state government in UP, draws much of its support from Muslims and lower caste communities, while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by former chief Mayawati Kumari, looks both to those at the lowest and those higher in the social order.

As it is, the man who secured the second highest number of seats in the last election, did so from a jail cell, strangely permitted by election rules. Mukhtar Ansari, a notorious Muslim leader, fell just 17,000 votes short of becoming Varanasi’s member of parliament in 2009, even though he had been charged with a political-related murder and was awaiting trial in Agra jail, where he managed to secure special treatment including an air-conditioner in his cell.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal waves at supporters after ink was thrown at him during an election campaign in Varanasi, India (AP) Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal waves at supporters after ink was thrown at him during an election campaign in Varanasi, India (AP)
Eventually expelled from the BSP, Mr Ansari formed his own party, the Quami Ekta Dal. His associate, Athar Jamal Lari, told The Independent that Mr Ansari would be contesting two seats, also permitted by election rules, and that he had chosen Varanasi and a neighbouring constituency. “Last time, 75 per cent of Muslims voted for him. This time he will contest and he going to get the same number of votes,” he said.

Yet a senior Muslim journalist, Merajuddin, of the Urdu-language Rashtriya Sahara newspaper, said many Muslims would wait to see which non-BJP candidate looked best positioned to defeat Mr Modi. “There are 350,000 Muslims in Varanasi. They will wait until the last moment and then they will decide which candidate to support,” said Merajuddin, who uses one name.

If Mr Kejriwal is to take on Mr Modi, it is among Varanasi’s Muslims, who account for around 20 per cent of the city’s population, that he will have to win many votes. As it is, when Mr Kejriwal visited the city this week he made sure both to bathe in the Ganges and to meet with Muslim leaders.

When he appeared at a rally in the middle of the city, next to a largely Muslim neighbourhood, he wore both the painted “tikka” marks on his forehead from a temple visit and a traditional prayer hat handed to him by a Muslim leader.

“I challenge Modi to a debate here in this ground. If he doesn’t come, then understand, something is wrong,” said Mr Kejriwal.

Among the enthusiastic but modestly sized crowed, numbering no more than 15,000, according to a police officer on duty, were three women who work in HIV prevention. They said India was tormented by corruption and believed that Mr Kejriwal was the only person who could stop it.

“If you go to a government office you will not even be able to see the correct person to deal with your problem,” said Maya Patel. “And if you do get to meet that person you cannot get anything done without a bribe. I will definitely vote for the AAP.”

Voting for India’s election, with 814 million registered voters, is being held on nine separate days. Polling in Varanasi is due to take place on 12 May. All the results are expected to be announced on 16 May.

Observers say Mr Modi is the likely favourite in Varanasi, something acknowledged by most of his rivals. Mr Kejriwal’s supporters liken his effort to beat Mr Modi to Mohandas Gandhi’s struggle to defeat India’s British rulers.

Yet in Varanasi the BJP claims it is unperturbed. In an upstairs room of the party’s rather shabby offices, Laxman Acharya, a party official with responsibility for 14 constituencies in UP, said Mr Modi’s presence in the contest would have a ripple effect. He would also be able to better push Varanasi’s development.

“He will have an impact not just on these constituencies, but across the country,” he said. As for Mr Kejriwal, he claimed be was not impressed by what he had seen. “We don’t take him seriously. He is not a serious person.”

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