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.
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
COMING TO THE HOLY HINDU CITY OFVARANASI HAS OPENED THE MODI CAMPAIGN TO ATTACK FROM OTHER PARTIES
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 VARANASI EFFECT
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.
BACK TO HINDUTVA
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.
RHYMES FOR THE TIMES
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.
MANEESH AGNIHOTRI BJP SUPPORTERS AT MODI'S VIJAY SHANKHNAD RALLY IN LUCKNOW