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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs decision to stand from Varanasi has galvanised the city as nothing has in its millennial history. ‚ÄúVaranasi is at the core of this election. After all, the future prime minister of the country is standing from here,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúIf he doesn‚Äôt, we will be terribly disappointed.‚ÄĚ
Dubey is a Brahmin who voted for the BJP‚Äôs Murli Manohar Joshi in the 2009 General Election. Today, he has changed horses, if not parties, without a qualm. ‚ÄúJoshi did nothing for us and I am glad he did not get the ticket this time,‚ÄĚ says Dubey. ‚ÄúModi will change not just Varanasi but the entire country. Look at Gujarat, he has transformed the state.‚ÄĚ
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: ‚ÄúOur culture is ancient and people must respect it. The rulers must carry everyone with them if India has to survive.‚ÄĚ He is unhappy over the brash way in which Joshi was pushed out of Varanasi. ‚ÄúOur religion teaches us to respect our elders. Joshi is a good man,‚Äô‚Äô 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. ‚ÄúLet us give him a chance and see what he does.‚ÄĚ
Would he like a Ram temple to be built in Ayodhya? ‚ÄúOnly if all communities agree,‚ÄĚ he says.
Radheshyam‚Äôs broad vision of Hinduism is shared by many people in the city. ‚ÄúWe will not allow any fascist force to destroy the broad and inclusive Hindu culture of this city,‚Äô‚Äô 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 ‚ÄėPurbi Ang‚Äô thumri.
‚ÄúThere are plenty of others in every field,‚ÄĚ Raghuvanshi goes on. ‚ÄúAll of them represent the composite, pluralistic culture of Varanasi. Together, they represent a tradition of syncretism that is much bigger than Modi.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs throw away from where he is speaking at a coffee shop is the BJP office in Sigra. In keeping with Modi‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs win, the idea is to connect with every individual voter in every locality. ‚ÄúWe want to make his victory historic, one that has never been seen in India,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs and the Radisson Surya. Amit Shah, who is in charge of Modi‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúPeople want Modi as PM. His popularity is driving our campaign. Varanasi has now become the political capital of the election,‚ÄĚ says Kohli. But Muslims in the city are worried about Modi. ‚ÄúModi is there to solve problems for every Indian. He has only one agenda: development,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúis not a factor but a distraction‚ÄĚ.
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. ‚ÄúWe think Modi must win and become the PM. He has proved himself by developing Gujarat.‚ÄĚ Akshay Toklia, 21, says, ‚ÄúI 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.‚ÄĚ
But the ‚Äúdistraction‚ÄĚ is slowly getting bigger. Kejriwal‚Äôs 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‚Äôs Muslims are deeply worried about Modi.
In the five Assembly seats that make up the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, three are in the city ‚ÄĒ Varanasi North, South and Cantonment ‚ÄĒ while the other two ‚ÄĒ Rohaniya and Sevapuri ‚ÄĒ 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.
‚ÄúWe 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,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄúWe will vote for Modi‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ shows the uneasiness over talking politics with strangers. Told to stop pretending, they laugh and get serious.
‚ÄúAs a community, we are extremely worried about the future,‚ÄĚ says 62-year-old Akhtar Farooqi, a weaver. ‚ÄúFor the sake of politics, Mulayam Singh sacrificed our security.‚ÄĚ Sirajuddin Qureshi, a 40-year-old weaver, butts in: ‚ÄúIn 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.‚ÄĚ
This group is keeping its cards close to its chest. No one wants to let out who they will vote for. ‚ÄúThere is time yet. We will decide according to the situation,‚ÄĚ says Qureshi. What do they feel about AAP? ‚ÄúArvind Kejriwal is a good man. He brought down the price of electricity during his short term in office. Corruption was also less,‚ÄĚ says Hanif, a 30-year-old weaver. Muslims are torn between the familiar ‚ÄĒ the Congress ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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.