Battle For Benares

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Varanasi the timeless hearth of Hindu civilisation is in the grip of acute schizophrenia. In the old parts of the city, traditions going back 3,000 years are still intact. Hindus pray at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, as they have prayed for a thousand years. The rituals every morning and evening are as ancient as the river Ganga, now reduced to a rivulet with the onset of summer.

Cheek by jowl with Kashi Vishwanath temple is the Gyanvapi mosque, where Muslims offer prayers and the azaan can be heard five times a day. The ghats leading to the river are awash with devotees: some bathing, some praying, others taking photographs. Cows refuse to give way to humans. Dogs and monkeys coexist happily with those peddling items for puja. Everybody is out to make a quick buck. Untouched by the noise and the dirt, lines of sadhus sit along the steps, gazing into the river.

But the frenetic present has finally invaded the timeless past. The ghats are not immune to the glitzy political campaign of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Young men wearing Modi T-shirts, some wearing Modi masks, have spread through the narrow lanes and filled the air with their high-decibel campaigning for a brave new India.

Modi’s decision to stand from Varanasi has galvanised the city as nothing has in its millennial history. “Varanasi is at the core of this election. After all, the future prime minister of the country is standing from here,” says Gopal Dubey, a young medical representative. He and his family are hardcore BJP supporters and have never voted for any other party to date. He is convinced Modi will win in Varanasi and Vadodara and keep the first seat and vacate the second. “If he doesn’t, we will be terribly disappointed.”

Dubey is a Brahmin who voted for the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi in the 2009 General Election. Today, he has changed horses, if not parties, without a qualm. “Joshi did nothing for us and I am glad he did not get the ticket this time,” says Dubey. “Modi will change not just Varanasi but the entire country. Look at Gujarat, he has transformed the state.”

Older, more traditional Brahmins are not, however, of the same mind. Radheshyam, a wizened old sadhu whom I met contemplating the river, is as aware of the political storm swirling around him as Dubey. His is the voice of an older, gentler India: “Our culture is ancient and people must respect it. The rulers must carry everyone with them if India has to survive.” He is unhappy over the brash way in which Joshi was pushed out of Varanasi. “Our religion teaches us to respect our elders. Joshi is a good man,’’ he adds. He talks of Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru. He admires both. Without any prodding, he goes on to talk of the Babri Masjid demolition and says Hinduism does not teach people to bring down mosques. He admits, though, that notwithstanding his reservations, he and the 60,000-odd sadhus who have voting rights will mostly vote for Modi. “Let us give him a chance and see what he does.”

Would he like a Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya? “Only if all communities agree,” he says.

Radheshyam’s broad vision of Hinduism is shared by many people in the city. “We will not allow any fascist force to destroy the broad and inclusive Hindu culture of this city,’’ says Lenin Raghuvanshi, secretary general of the Jan Mitra Nyas, an NGO working for Dalit rights. His father is a die-hard communist and Raghuvanshi has never voted for the Congress before. But this time, while his elder brother is with the BJP, father and son are reluctantly voting for the Congress. They are doing this, explains Raghuvanshi, to protect the secular space.

Varanasi is home not just to Hinduism. Gautama Buddha delivered his first major sermon at Sarnath. The Jain Tirthankaras were also active here. The late shehnai player Bismillah Khan was from Varanasi. Premchand, the novelist, lived here. Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar spent his youth here. Today, this city is home to writers such as Kashinath Singh and Balraj Pandey, sarod maestro Vikas Maharaj, and Channulal Mishra, arguably the greatest exponent of ‘Purbi Ang’ thumri.

“There are plenty of others in every field,” Raghuvanshi goes on. “All of them represent the composite, pluralistic culture of Varanasi. Together, they represent a tradition of syncretism that is much bigger than Modi.” He believes that there is a silent undercurrent of anti-Modi sentiment in the Brahmin community. But others dismiss this as wishful thinking.

A stone’s throw away from where he is speaking at a coffee shop is the BJP office in Sigra. In keeping with Modi’s status, the BJP has rented three floors of a plush multi-storey. Money is no consideration here. The office runs like clockwork. Workers and visitors have to wait to be called in. Shoes are not allowed in.

Sprawled in the spacious area before entering the office are chairs where workers are waiting for a call from inside. Among them is a self-important party worker, who gave his first name as Ravi. He has been working in the Jat belt and gleefully points out that the BJP will enjoy a clean sweep in the riot-hit areas, where polls are over. Also waiting to be briefed is the glamorous Udita Tyagi. She is a former Mrs India and is involved in the My Clean India Campaign. She was among those invited for high tea by Modi on Women’s Day in New Delhi. She is here to campaign among women. Her first meeting is in Ramnagar, where she will pitch Modi to Malla women from the boating community, an OBC group.

Though the BJP is confident of Modi’s win, the idea is to connect with every individual voter in every locality. “We want to make his victory historic, one that has never been seen in India,” says Akshit Singh, a BJP worker. The RSS have put their hand to the chakki, and have been in the field for the past six months. RSS workers have fanned out across the city, building contact groups and keeping in touch with the wards they are in charge of.

The central BJP leaders may be soliciting the votes of the poor, but they are working out of luxury five-star hotels far away from town like Clark’s and the Radisson Surya. Amit Shah, who is in charge of Modi’s campaign, arrived last week to make arrangements for his nomination on 24 April.

Nalin Kohli, the savvy media in-charge, is there to take questions. Much thought went into the decision of choosing Varanasi for Modi. It is replete with symbolism, for Varanasi is at the heart of Hinduism and the BJP sees itself as the protector of the faith. Uttar Pradesh has also sent the maximum number of prime ministers to Delhi.

“People want Modi as PM. His popularity is driving our campaign. Varanasi has now become the political capital of the election,” says Kohli. But Muslims in the city are worried about Modi. “Modi is there to solve problems for every Indian. He has only one agenda: development,” Kohli ends with a flourish. Of the 21 seats where polling has been held in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is confident of winning 18. The BJP regards the Congress as its main competitor and says Arvind Kejriwal “is not a factor but a distraction”.

A group of 10 BCom students sipping tea under a tree at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) agree with him, for seven are BJP enthusiasts. Sonal Jaiswal, 21, says they have been following the news. “We think Modi must win and become the PM. He has proved himself by developing Gujarat.” Akshay Toklia, 21, says, “I think both the BJP and the Congress are corrupt. Kejriwal is giving the country a new kind of politics. I think he will make a difference.”

But the “distraction” is slowly getting bigger. Kejriwal’s campaign has enlisted a silent army of volunteers from Delhi. They obviously lack the money power of both the BJP and the Congress, but the enthusiasm is there for all to see. They are working out of a small office, where the power is constantly going off. Some volunteers are living with families of local Aam Aadmi Party supporters. Others are staying at a flat; again extended for free by friends of AAP.

But they are not starting from scratch, for away from the ghats, away from the luxurious outskirts of the city, the mood is very different. Varanasi’s Muslims are deeply worried about Modi.

In the five Assembly seats that make up the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, three are in the city — Varanasi North, South and Cantonment — while the other two — Rohaniya and Sevapuri — are in the rural areas. According to local pundits, the Hindus of the city, except a few, will overwhelmingly vote for Modi. Three of the Assembly seats are with the BJP. Both the Congress and AAP are concentrating in the rural and semi-rural belt. After Independence, Varanasi remained a Congress bastion until 1967, when the CPI candidate won. There is still a small group of Leftist cadres in Varanasi who are working for AAP. But the CPM has fielded its own candidate, who will take a bite of the 60,000 or so Left vote.

“We are going door-to-door. Most people listen to us, and women and younger family members are more interested in giving us a patient hearing,” says Prerna of AAP. What she said was echoed by students at the BHU. The university has lost some of its former glory, but remains a respected institution. The drive is beautiful and the university is sprawled over a large area, with tree-lined avenues providing a cool cover.

Kejriwal and his team are targeting young people and the Muslims, hoping to cash in on the minority community’s disappointment with the Congress. And they are getting a response for the past two years have been particularly trying for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. The recent riots in Muzaffarnagar have shaken the community. Traditionally, the Muslims voted for the Congress or the Samajwadi Party (SP), but the Congress is out of the reckoning in Varanasi, so they are afraid and uncertain which way to turn. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has broken the trust that his father and SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav had built. And Modi is looming large over their heads. The anger against corruption and bad governance is as strong among the Muslims here as in the rest of the country. And here too, most of it is turned against the Congress.

A group of Muslims in skullcaps, pristine white salwars and the traditional long kurtas are chatting at a tea shop in an area not far from the Kashi Vishwanath temple. They look suspiciously at outsiders. The conversation turns to the election season. The first reaction — “We will vote for Modi” — shows the uneasiness over talking politics with strangers. Told to stop pretending, they laugh and get serious.

“As a community, we are extremely worried about the future,” says 62-year-old Akhtar Farooqi, a weaver. “For the sake of politics, Mulayam Singh sacrificed our security.” Sirajuddin Qureshi, a 40-year-old weaver, butts in: “In the past, we had successively voted for the Congress. This time, too, they have a good man in Ajai Rai. But corruption and high prices under the Congress rule are big issues. Congress is the party that brought us our freedom. But, over the past decade, they have done little. All the politicians join hands to make money.”

This group is keeping its cards close to its chest. No one wants to let out who they will vote for. “There is time yet. We will decide according to the situation,” says Qureshi. What do they feel about AAP? “Arvind Kejriwal is a good man. He brought down the price of electricity during his short term in office. Corruption was also less,” says Hanif, a 30-year-old weaver. Muslims are torn between the familiar — the Congress — and the unknown represented by Kejriwal. Most people are aware of him even before he decided to take on Modi in Varanasi.

One person who was following Kejriwal closely was Ateeq Ansari, a prominent leader of the weaver community known locally as Bunkars. Ansari remembered what struck him most about the AAP leader. In the early days of Kejriwal’s foray into politics, he was meeting people from different sections of society. One day, a group of Muslim leaders met him. In what has become routine, Kejriwal was asked by one of the traditional elders what he had to offer the Muslims. Kejriwal replied that he had nothing special to offer. He would work for bettering their lives and welfare as much as he would for every other aam aadmi of the country.

Kejriwal’s answer struck a chord in Ansari in faraway Benaras. The AAP leader was not one to pander to the ghetto mentality of many traditional Muslim leaders. Over the years, most political parties have treated Muslims as if they are a different species. “Everyone wants better jobs, schools, health facilities and security. Muslims are no different,” says Ansari. “I hate people whose politics is based either on caste or religion.”

For Ansari, Kejriwal has changed the narrative of Indian politics. This is why Ansari, even though not a member of AAP, is going out of his way to persuade the more than 3 lakh Muslim voters of Varanasi to vote for Kejriwal as he has something new to offer everyone.

The majority of Muslims in Varanasi are weavers. They are accustomed to vote en masse. Ansari is pushing them to change their tradition of negative voting, meaning to keep someone out. “Muslims have voted not by choice but out of compulsion,” he says. He tells fellow Muslims that it is time to give up their negative approach and vote positively. Instead of keeping Narendra Modi out, they should concentrate in making sure that Kejriwal wins.

Ansari is himself a Bunkar and former general secretary of the Benaras Weavers Association. He is well-respected by Bunkars, and won their respect by fighting for their rights. In 1995, the Congress-led state government levied a 5 percent tax on powerlooms. After a protest by Bunkars, in which Ansari played a pivotal role, this tax was lifted. During Deve Gowda’s term as prime minister, the Centre banned the import of silk yarn, which hit the weavers hard. Once again, the weavers from Varanasi led a nationwide agitation, which forced the government to lift the ban. In 2002, the Central government decided to levy an excise duty on powerlooms. For one month, all looms in the state were shut down. The weavers led by Ansari and the traders led by the BJP’s Ashok Dhawan joined forces and won the battle together. This is why Ansari’s word counts with the Bunkars and Kejriwal is lucky to have him on his side.

Many are in two minds over whom to back. AAP and Kejriwal are going all out to woo the Bunkars.

At a meeting in Baribazar on a humid Friday, Kejriwal connects easily with his audience. He speaks in a language they understand. The meeting is near a crowded market, alive with lights and shopfronts filled with tacky ware. A huge crowd has gathered for the meeting. Every person here is in some way or the other connected with the weaving industry. There are burqa-clad women in the streets, but not a single woman has come to hear Kejriwal.

Before Kejriwal speaks, other AAP leaders set the tone and tenor of the meeting. All the big guns of the party — Alka Lamba, Sanjay Singh — and locals such as Ateeq Ansari are there. They build up the tempo. Speeches are short, to the point, and keep the audience completely engaged.

There is thunderous applause as Kejriwal talks. “I have come with a bag to beg for votes… You have the key to Varanasi in your hands, you have the strength to change,” he says. “You have seen through the years that the Congress and the BJP take votes from you and serve Mukesh Ambani. Ambani is the richest man in India. Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi are in his pocket. You know, during our government in Delhi, we had the guts to lodge an FIR against him.” Kejriwal goes on about his short stint as Delhi chief minister and how he slashed electricity prices. The crowd listens in rapt attention.

The complete faith people have in Kejriwal is touching. They believe every word he says, including his exaggerated claims of being the only government since Independence to have done so much during his two-month rule. “If you vote for Modi, he will sell the country to Ambani,” Kejriwal says with a flourish.

Kejriwal says he realises the problems they face because their designs are being copied and mass produced by mills in Surat. The mass-produced saris at half the price of the Benaras weaves are flooding the market. He vows to solve their problems but does not spell out how.

“Kejriwal is not a politician. He is here to serve the country and change the way we think. He will not take our votes and forget us for the next five years,” says Hanif Mohammad, who vociferously applauded as Kejriwal spoke. The enthusiastic response suggests that many of the Muslims may veer around to Kejriwal.

The crowds that Kejriwal attracted during his roadshow on 23 April as he went to file his nomination, shows that there is a strong undercurrent of support for AAP. His campaign is likely to pick up in the coming days. At least 10,000 Muslims were part of his roadshow, which is good news for Kejriwal. “We did not expect this,” admits a party member on the condition of anonymity. Spirits are high. There is also the fact that if Muslim voters believe that AAP has a chance, they will back Kejriwal.

A major player in minority politics is Quami Ekta Dal leader Mukhtar Ansari. In the 2009 polls, Ansari was the BSP candidate and enjoyed the backing of the entire Muslim community. As a result, BJP stalwart Joshi scraped through with just 17,000 votes.

After his expulsion from the BSP, Ansari formed his own outfit. Though he claims he has not stood this time to ensure that the secular vote does not get divided, he was, in fact, requested by the Muslims not to contest. But Quami Ekta Party leaders rubbish this. Ansari is willing to back AAP, but Kejriwal is in no mood to take support from a man serving a jail sentence for murder. The Quami Ekta Party will not ask its supporters to support Ajai Rai because of his bitter enmity with the Congress candidate. So, his supporters are free to choose on their own.

It is true that any consolidation in the minority votes will lead to counter consolidation in favour of the BJP. How that pans out remains to be seen. But the Muslims are unlikely to make any public announcement of who their vote will go to. For the moment, it is advantage Kejriwal.

“Modi may be occupying the mindspace but there are at least three times more anti-Modi votes,” says Sanjay Asthana, a Varanasi-based political observer. “The key is to mobilise this segment. If AAP can tap this, it will be match on.”

But whether AAP, with its meagre resources, is in a position to do this remains to be seen. At the moment, AAP has 300 volunteers on the ground. The numbers will increase as the D-day approaches. By the end of the month, Kejriwal will have around 10,000 volunteers.

On the other hand, the Congress is confident of getting all the Muslim votes. Like the BJP, the party is also dismissive of AAP. “We know the collective voting behaviour of the people. Muslims will watch which candidate can give a strong fight to Modi before making up their mind,” says Satish Rai, a Congress supporter from Kashi Vidyapeeth. “They will finally back us.”

Varanasi has 17 lakh voters. Two lakh of these are first-time voters. Brahmins are around 3 lakh and 1.25 lakh are Bhumihars, who are also Brahmins, but at some point in the past, decided to go for agriculture instead of being pujaris. Altogether, the Brahmins and Bhumihars make up more than 4 lakh of the electorate. Most of the Bhumihars are concentrated in the rural parts of Varanasi.

Congress candidate Ajai Rai is a Bhumihar. He is also a popular local man, having been a five-time MLA. He has shifted allegiance several times, winning as a BJP, BSP, independent, and now fighting on a Congress ticket. All the recent allegations by the BJP about his criminal past have little impact on the electorate. Everyone in Varanasi knows that former BSP leader Mukhtar Ansari allegedly killed his brother, and that he and Ansari have been at war ever since. In Uttar Pradesh, family feuds are a totally accepted fact of life. Both Hindus and Muslims have good words for him. “He is always with us, in our good days and bad,” says Akshay Sharma, a taxi driver. But Sharma makes it clear that he won’t vote for Rai, because this time it has to be Narendra Modi.

Congress leaders are quite certain that they will get the Bhumihar votes as well as a section of the anti- Modi Brahmin votes. They also point to the hold that the family of late Congress stalwart Kamalapati Tripathi has among Brahmins. Rajesh Pati Tripathi of the Uttar Pradesh Congress is said to have persuaded Delhi Congress leaders to give the nomination to Rai. So, the Congress is hoping that some sections of the Brahmin votes will also come their way.

The Congress is also banking on the bruised Brahmin pride over the shunting out of BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi. Similarly, all Bhumihar votes will not go to Rai because the Modi and Hindutva factors as well as development agenda are playing out well with the general public.

However, the fact remains that there is no move to get all the anti-Modi votes in favour of one candidate. Every party, including the CPM, has fielded a candidate. Then there is the BSP candidate and a weak SP candidate, besides Kejriwal and Rai. Conspiracy theories about a deal between the SP and the BJP over the weak nominee of the ruling party is being talked about incessantly.

The fact that the anti-Modi votes are divided and the political parties have not got together to oppose the BJP, gives Modi a clear advantage. The caste calculations with the consolidation of the upper-caste votes is clearly in Modi’s favour, making him the frontrunner. The question is whether Rai or Kejriwal will be the main challenger. So far, it is not clear.

“Modi is definitely the frontrunner,” says analyst Sudhir Panwar from Lucknow University. “But remember, much of the loud proclamation by people about Modi is only big talk. The people in Varanasi will vote according to caste and loyalty to different political parties… I think the biggest challenger is Kejriwal and if all anti-Modi forces rally behind him, he will give Modi a tough fight.”

While the politicians fight it out and analysts and the opinionated debate, there is one man by the banks of the Ganga who is away from it all. “I will not vote,” says Shiv Charan, who provides diyas and flowers for devotees at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. “Politicians are all thieves.”

Folding his hands together in prayer, the 24-year-old adds, “Gangamaiya has looked after me all this time. I am happy serving her. My faith is with her. When the goddess is with me, I am at peace and want nothing else.”

letters@tehelka.com

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