Hope Floats for BJP

A city lost in time is trans­formed into the epi­cen­tre of Modi’s cam­paign to re­claim the heart­land for the BJP.

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ku­nal Prad­han and Ashish Misra

On De­cem­ber 20, 2013, Naren­dra Modi breached the labyrinth of nar­row criss-cross­ing by­lanes that sur­rounds Varanasi’s Kashi Vish­wanath tem­ple. He en­tered the com­plex from the east­ern gate and sat in the sanctum fac­ing north. Af­ter three hor­i­zon­tal lines of san­dal­wood tika were ap­plied to his fore­head, priests took Modi through the mool sankalp, or prin­ci­pal pledge. The en­treaty in his case was sim­ple and di­rect: ‘ Prad­han Mantri pad kaamna’, or the wish to be­come prime min­is­ter. As Modi was about to leave af­ter bathing the de­ity in honey, su­gar, milk, yo­ghurt and ghee, the tem­ple’s head priest Srikant Mishra turned to him and said: “You’re be­com­ing prime min­is­ter be­cause of Ba­naras (Varanasi), so you will come to this city’s aide.” Back then, the Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter was only toy­ing with the idea of con­test­ing from Ut­tar Pradesh, and even if he did, his pre­ferred choice was Luc­know. The frizzy-haired Mishra, who says he isn’t prone to mak­ing such prophe­cies, be­lieves he may have acted as a medium re­lay­ing God’s mes­sage.

It’s now the morn­ing af­ter an­other bhang- drenched Holi

in Varanasi. Its bustling streets are al­most empty as light traf­fic whizzes past in­ter­sec­tions. There are no tan­gi­ble signs of a Modi im­print yet, but the ex­cite­ment is pal­pa­ble wher­ever small crowds gather—at stalls where the fa­mous Ba­narsi paan is be­ing skill­fully as­sem­bled and in hole-in-the-wall shops where yel­low thandai is be­ing ex­pertly poured. “Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi,” chant two chil­dren softly as they walk past the Mazda park­ing lot near Dashash­wamedh Ghat. Some on­look­ers break into a smile; some oth­ers join the cho­rus fer­vently. This land of Shiva, the de­stroyer, is slowly wak­ing up to its sud­den trans­for­ma­tion from a city lost in time to the new epi­cen­tre of the Bat­tle for In­dia.

As the Modi jug­ger­naut marches into this an­cient abode, it brings not just a prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date tak­ing on out­siders and se­nior lead­ers from his own party, but also a ri­val gi­ant-killer ea­ger to prove a point. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Ke­jri­wal may have asked the people of


Varanasi to give him a ticket in his rally on March 25 but, in re­al­ity, the de­ci­sion to con­test has al­ready been made. Add to the mix the rul­ing Sa­ma­jwadi Party chief Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav’s foray into nearby Aza­m­garh, for­mer chief min­is­ter Mayawati’s resurgent BSP, a stum­bling Congress party, and in Quami Ekta Dal’s Mukhtar An­sari a lo­cal leader with a huge sway on the city’s size­able Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, and you get a con­test that rep­re­sents sev­eral elec­tion buzz­words. The Varanasi cam­paign sym­bol­ises ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism, po­lar­i­sa­tion, mi­nor­ity ap­pease­ment, crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion, and the new wave of anti-neta pol­i­tics, all rolled into one.


The most sig­nif­i­cant im­pact of Varanasi is how it will re­de­fine the Modi cam­paign from here on—par­tic­u­larly in Ut­tar Pradesh, which elects 80 of the 543 Lok Sabha mem­bers and holds the key to Modi’s am­bi­tions. Modi’s de­ci­sion to come here, in­stead of the other “safe” seats of Luc­know and Kanpur, is be­ing de­scribed by his party’s rank and file as a strate­gic mas­ter­stroke. His state unit, headed by his clos­est aide and po­lit­i­cal chief of staff Amit Shah, says it will use Varanasi as the cen­tral con­trol room for about 40 Lok Sabha con­stituen­cies in a ra­dius cov­er­ing parts of east­ern Ut­tar Pradesh, western Bi­har and north-east­ern Mad­hya Pradesh that will be di­rectly af­fected by Modi’s pres­ence in the re­gion. “Varanasi is the cul­tural cap­i­tal of Pur­van­chal. It af­fects the en­tire area. Just you wait and see,” says the party’s lo­cal spokesman Rakesh Trivedi in a typ­i­cal Ba­narsi sing-song, “we will win all nearby seats by a huge mar­gin now that the Modi car­ni­val is here.”

BJP had fin­ished in fourth place in Ut­tar Pradesh in 2009 with only 10 seats, be­hind SP’s 23, Congress’s 21, and BSP’s 20. Nine months ago, an in­ter­nal sur­vey con­ducted for BJP by GVL Narasimha Rao gave it 52 seats in the state. The sur­vey found that the vote per­cent­age jumped by dou­ble dig­its just at the prospect of Modi be­ing named the prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date. “The chal­lenge in Ut­tar Pradesh is in con­vert­ing the sup­port into votes on count­ing day. For that, all Lok Sabha con­stituen­cies have been pro­filed on caste, lo­cal talent has been iden­ti­fied, and po­ten­tial can­di­dates who have pres­ence on the ground and are winnable have been short­listed,” says Rao. “Modi fight­ing from east­ern Ut­tar Pradesh, which is tra­di­tion­ally a weak area for BJP, will con­sol­i­date the vote.”

Most other polls have given BJP in the vicin­ity of 40 seats, though a lot will still de­pend on how the mi­nor­ity vote swings. While Modi’s main ri­val in Ut­tar Pradesh, Mu­layam Singh, is re­ly­ing on Mus­lims back­ing him, BSP’s

Mayawati is hop­ing the com­mu­nity will grav­i­tate to­wards her be­cause of its dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the SP govern­ment fol­low­ing the Muzaf­far­na­gar ri­ots in 2013. This will give her party crit­i­cal mass when com­bined with a size­able back­ward vote-bank. SP is wait­ing for all can­di­dates to be an­nounced be­fore putting a fig­ure on how many seats it can win. Un­less there is a late twist, both par­ties ap­pear to be fight­ing to di­vide the re­main­ing 40-45 seats. In­ter­nal sur­veys of the Congress put their tally at 10-16 but poll­sters sug­gest it will be re­duced to sin­gle dig­its pri­mar­ily be­cause of the per­for­mance of UPA 2. AAP joins the fray as the first-time en­trant with a na­tional pres­ence to fur­ther com­pli­cate the ten­u­ous caste equa­tions.


Ac­cord­ing to data from the Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties (CSDS), BJP got more than 50 per cent sup­port from up­per castes in the 2009 elec­tions, but fared poorly with OBCs and Dal­its, get­ting less than 15 per cent of votes from them. To avoid such mass re­jec­tion from a key de­mo­graphic, BJP has de­signed a strat­egy for each re­gion of the state. “Our chal­lenge is to bring back sup­port­ers who de­serted the BJP in the last few elec­tions. The other chal­lenge is to con­vert the Modi wave into votes,” says Shah. “BJP’s tra­di­tional vot­ers, in­clud­ing a large chunk of OBCs, got an­noyed with it for var­i­ous rea­sons in the past. But now the tide is turn­ing be­cause of Modi and be­cause the vot­ers’ ro­mance with re­gional par­ties is over.”

BJP has bro­ken the state into eight zones, with a clear plan of which caste to tar­get where, and which lead­ers or strate­gies to use to reel those com­mu­ni­ties in. In western Ut­tar Pradesh, which has 14 con­stituen­cies dom­i­nated by Jats, Mus­lims, Jatavs and Gur­jars, BJP is aim­ing to win over the Jats and Gur­jars, who have been po­larised fol­low­ing the Muzaf­far­na­gar ri­ots. The RSS is or­gan­is­ing pub­lic meet­ings called kshetra sab­has in which, sources say, it is at­tempt­ing to con­sol­i­date the non-Mus­lim com­mu­nity for BJP. The party had won only two seats, Meerut and Ghazi­abad, in this zone in 2009. In the cen­tral Braj re­gion, the land of Lord

Kr­ishna which has eight Lok Sabha con­stituen­cies dom­i­nated by Lodhs, Ya­davs, Jats, Thakurs and Mus­lims, for­mer chief min­is­ter Kalyan Singh, an OBC from the Lodh com­mu­nity, is try­ing to ac­com­plish an OBC-up­per caste equa­tion. Singh, who re­turned to BJP on March 2, has pro­cured a ticket for his son Ra­jveer Singh from Etah. Ac­tress and for­mer Ra­jya Sabha MP Hema Malini has been fielded as the party’s can­di­date from Mathura.

In the Awadh re­gion, which has 16 con­stituen­cies dom­i­nated by Kur­mis, Dal­its, Brah­mins and Mus­lims, sources say the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Par­ishad are play­ing an ac­tive role. Their work­ers are con­stantly on tour to rekin­dle the Ram Mandir is­sue and spread the word against SP’s Mus­lim ap­pease­ment. BJP na­tional pres­i­dent Ra­j­nath Singh is con­test­ing from Luc­know, which was high on Modi’s list of pos­si­ble con­stituen­cies, pri­mar­ily be­cause it was for­mer prime min­is­ter Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee’s seat.

The six con­stituen­cies in the Kanpur re­gion are dom­i­nated by Ya­davs, Mus­lims, Brah­mins and OBCs such as Nishad and Kashyap. Murli Manohar Joshi, un­seated from Varanasi to ac­com­mo­date Modi, is con­test­ing from Kanpur, the state’s largest commercial city which has a fair sprin­kling of Kanyakubj Brah­mins.

The party is re­ly­ing on Uma Bharti’s fer­vour in Bun­delk­hand and Maneka Gandhi’s in­flu­ence over the Bareilly zone. In the Go­rakh­pur re­gion, it is smartly mix­ing po­lar­i­sa­tion with de­vel- op­ment by talk­ing about Mus­lim ap­pease­ment and Modi’s Gu­jarat model.

Fi­nally, in the Kashi zone’s 14 Lok Sabha con­stituen­cies, the chant is of Som­nath se Vish­wanath, Modiji pe sab ka haath (From the Som­nath tem­ple to the Vish­wanath tem­ple, Modi’s bless­ings to one and all). This is where BJP ex­pects Modi ma­nia to be at its zenith. But RSS is leav­ing noth­ing to chance. It’s Sarsanghcha­lak Mo­han Bhag­wat was in Varanasi for a two-day meet of pracharaks and BJP lead­ers on Fe­bru­ary 16 about the road ahead. The over­rid­ing mes­sage to all work­ers across the state is that ev­ery vote is not for lo­cal can­di­dates, but for Modi.

Shah, who trav­elled 28,000 km across Ut­tar Pradesh be­tween June last year and Fe­bru­ary this year, had come to the state with a clear mes­sage from Modi—be care­ful but ruth­less while se­lect­ing can­di­dates. Since Shah had been in­volved with ticket dis­tri­bu­tion in Gu­jarat for the 2012 elec­tions, he was mind­ful of the dan­gers of pick­ing can­di­dates on ‘per­sonal re­quests’. Though Modi had won the Gu­jarat As­sem­bly polls for the third straight time, he had lost seats in parts of north and cen­tral Gu­jarat due to wrong se­lec­tion of can­di­dates.


But there is no run­ning away from the fact that Modi’s Varanasi ticket comes with re­li­gious im­pli­ca­tions that could dent his care­fully mar­keted de­vel­op­ment ap­peal. It al­lows Modi’s op­po­nents to con­tend that his prin­ci­pal driv­ing force is Hin­dutva, and not the growth mantra he has been chant­ing in ral­lies for the last six months. Varanasi means the holy Ganga, the clang­ing of bells, saf­fron robes on the streets, boat­men chew­ing tobacco, for­eign­ers with gar­lands around their necks, the Vish­wanath tem­ple, the dis­pute sur­round­ing the ad­join­ing Gyan­vapi mosque, and a his­tory of 3,000 and 8,000 years depend­ing on how strongly you be­lieve in re­li­gious mythol­ogy. Since it is im­pos­si­ble to dis­so­ci­ate the holi­est of Hindu cities from the rightwing agenda that BJP tra­di­tion­ally rep­re­sents, Modi’s Varanasi foray has opened his cam­paign to at­tacks.

“Of all the places in In­dia, why did Modi choose Varanasi? Why didn’t he go to Aza­m­garh or Ghazipur or Etawah?” asks Athar Ja­mal Lari, a close aide of Quami Ekta Dal leader An­sari, the leg­is­la­tor from Mau who fin­ished a close sec­ond in Varanasi in 2009 de­spite be­ing in jail since 2005 on mul­ti­ple cr­mi­nal charges. This is a line that sev­eral other

par­ties are tak­ing. “The de­vel­op­ment mask is off,” says SP spokesman Gau­rav Bha­tia. “When Amit Shah be­came the in-charge for Ut­tar Pradesh, he went to Ay­o­d­hya. Now Modi is con­test­ing from Kashi. What does it im­ply? That they’re only in­ter­ested in mandir-masjid.”

But Shah in­sists that Hin­dutva and de­vel­op­ment are not con­tra­dic­tory ideas. “There is no clash be­tween de­vel­op­ment and Hin­dutva if you go by

the true def­i­ni­tion of Hin­dutva,” he says. “There were other fac­tors that led to field­ing Modiji from Varanasi. We are weak in east­ern Ut­tar Pradesh and Varanasi will pro­vide us a spring­board to in­flu­ence the re­gion.”

In Varanasi city, the Modi fac­tor has en­er­gised more than just BJP cadres. In a grand rally held here in De­cem­ber, Modi had not spo­ken of Hin­dutva, though the stage be­hind him with a huge Lord Shiva back­drop had made the theme con­spic­u­ous enough. He had cho­sen in­stead to fo­cus on the pol­lu­tion of the Ganga that suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments in the state and the UPA Govern­ment were do­ing noth­ing about. Lead­ers from other par­ties are won-

der­ing if the tune will change when he comes to the city as the can­di­date.


Barely days af­ter the an­nounce­ment, Modi’s can­di­da­ture has sparked all kinds of cel­e­bra­tory gim­mickry from the blithe Ba­nar­sis. On March 18, a Modi looka­like from Sa­ha­ran­pur was pa­raded through the by­lanes sur­round­ing the tem­ple to huge cheers from the lo­cals. This dop­pel­ganger, Ab­hi­nan­dan Pathak, 49, de­scribes him­self as a so­cial ac­tivist. He has fash­ioned his beard and his clothes on Modi, and also waves his hands in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of the Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter. He says he came to Varanasi af­ter mort­gag­ing his mo­tor­cy­cle, and is de­lighted to be em­braced by lo­cal BJP lead­ers such as re­gional vice-pres­i­dent Shankar Giri.

On March 16, the eve of Holi, a lo­cal com­edy club, Sri Kashi 1450 Vid­vat Par­ishad, put on a skit in which Modi was mar­ried to Hol­ly­wood ac­tress An­gelina Jolie, who was given away by her “brother” Sal­man Khurshid, the Union ex­ter­nal af­fairs min­is­ter. The idea was to cock a snook at the United States for not grant­ing Modi a visa, and at Khurshid for call­ing Modi “im­po­tent” for not stop­ping the 2002 Gu­jarat ri­ots. The first four lines of the rhyming Bho­jpuri verse went thus: Abke Holiya mein bhar deinhe toliya/ Mai Ganga bhar dein­hen Modi ki jho­lia (This Holi, we’ll mul­ti­ply our num­bers/ The Ganga will grant Modi’s wishes) PM kursi sange mil­ihe An­gelina Jolieya/ Aur bhaiya Khurshid parachein lava e Holiya (Along with PM’s chair, he will wed An­gelina Jolie/Her brother Khurshid will shower the groom with rice crispies)

The colourful and the bizarre that make elec­tions in In­dia a fes­ti­val of heat, dust and ex­ag­ger­ated rhetoric has started to man­i­fest it­self on Ground Zero. It’s been long said that the road to Raisina Hill goes via Luc­know. This elec­tion, it will take a more dra­matic turn east­wards to go via Varanasi.

Cover pho­to­graph by RO­HIT CHAWLA


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