The electoral mood in country’s VVIP Lok sabha constituency Benares (Varanasi) is slowly gearing up after the poll dates announced by the Election Commission last Sunday.
Just after EC’s press conference, an OB van of a national news channel was spotted at Godowlia, the city’s buzzing market that leads to Ganga ghats. Tea corners are abuzz with speculations and electoral arithmetic. Although none seems to vocally challenge the candidature of PM Narendra Modi but a common expression lurks in air, “Abki chunav mein bahut maza ayega” (Elections will be full of fun this time).
To decode the expected “fun” in upcoming polls, one needs to be attentive to the grapevine about the latest political developments. It may be disheartening for many but the latest announcement by Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad to contest against PM Modi from Benares has not created a fuss even among the masses.
Intellectuals on the other hand cite caste wise distribution of voters in favour of Chandrashekhar Azad. The local journalist fraternity however maintains that Azad will not be able to break even and to field him will be a mistake.
So who is the best bet against Modi? This is the million dollar question in the run-up to nominations. There are two general answers to this question: first, whoever will challenge Modi will certainly be defeated because he is invincible. Although respondents pronounce ‘his’ invincibility with a flat-face as if they are trying to hide something. This gesture is much clear and readable among those sections who have at least once opposed the policies of the Modi regime, local mallah (boatmen) being one of them who went on strike twice in the last six months against Modi’s cruise. Likewise, traders and petty shop owners too announce the comeback of Modi as if the answer is pre-loaded in their memory disc.
The second answer may be general but it is not so common: “He will reap what he has sown in last five years. No matter who is the opponent, Modi will be defeated by the people”. Ramprasad, a sole dealer of gamchha runs a small shop in Chowk. He was the most vocal supporter of Modi and BJP in 2014. He used to say then, “He is not Modi, he is moti. He has been sent by Ram to perform the unfinished task”.
Around UP assembly elections, he was still counting on a couple of years left but now he is all out against Modi. Just pose the question and he starts blabbering continuously in very abusive language typical of Benares: “Are Mahadev, banaras ne Modi ko nahin Ram ko jitaya tha. Paanch saal mein ek mandir to banva nahin sake, ulte mandir tod diye. Ek zamane mein Babar aya tha, aaj ka babar Modi hai jo hindu ki hi jaan le raha hai. Mahadev, iski … mein dum hota to ek masjid hi tod kar dikha deta lekin nahin, ye chahta hi nahin hai. Keval loot khasot… mahadev, isko haarna hoga to kisi se haar jayega, candidate ka sawal hi nahin hai.”.(Banaras had voted for Ram, not Modi. He could not build a temple in five years, rather he destroyed many temples. Once there was a Babar, Modi is today’s Babar who is hellbent against Hindus. If he had guts he would have at least demolished a mosque but actually he does not want to. Only loot and theft…. If he is destined to lose, anyone can defeat him, no question of who is his opponent. If you are not careful of the articles that surround the respondent, you may lose the crux. For example, dozens of tea-sellers wearing saffron colored “Namo Again” T-Shirts are roaming on ghats. Once you ask them, they will start speaking from foreign policy to surgical strike and poverty alleviation and anything that you can imagine to prove that Modi is the ultimate answer to people’s woes.
If you talk to a shopkeeper, just try to look at his wall and a wall clock bearing Modi would be spotted unmistakably. Even roadside vendors, rehdi and thelas display Modi clock. Poi’s tea shop on Assi chauraha was also given this clock but he never unpacked it. He says, “sab bhajpa waale bantate rahte hain… ap lagao ya na lagao, ye aapki marzi hai” (BJP people distribute all this, it is up to you whether you display it or not).
This is half-truth. The day Modi came to Benares on March 8th for inauguration Vishwanath Dham, only those vendors were allowed on the streets who displayed Modi clocks and only those people were allowed on roads who displayed BJP muffler. The Modi brand articles have been such widely distributed that almost none dares speak on the problems and issues openly.
It seems as if some identification and profiling process is going on since last few months. Some incidents suggesting this have also come to light. For instance, the day Pulwama attack happened, a Muslim youth standing on a pan shop in Godowlia was abruptly ambushed by a Hindu vigilante group at night, abused and asked to go to Pakistan. When his friends retaliated, they stepped back.
Similarly, a Muslim youth was watching Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat when he was picked up by police and asked why he was there. When he said that he was watching Aarti, the policeman said why he should do this being a Muslim. Finally the youth landed in police station and was locked up for hours before his friends came to his rescue. NH talked to this youth and has exclusive footages of the police atrocity.
These are the various reasons why not only Muslims but Hindus also are keeping restraint in public debates. Ramprasad says, “banaras ka aadmi apne pet mein jawab chhupaye hue hai. Vote ke din surgical strike hoga. Jaise ye aaye rahe, vaise hi achanak chale jayenge. BJP ka naamleva nahin bachega, mahadev” (People of Banaras are silent right now, you will see their surgical strike on voting day. As he came, so will he go all of a sudden. No one will be left to talk of BJP then).
The caste-wise distribution of voters is a dominant factor that will decide the fate of Modi in Varanasi. Talking to voters, one gets a primary sense that Modi is undefeatable, but getting into the nitty gritty of the caste equation suggests that Modi can be challenged if the opposition fields a common candidate that is a local and not an outsider.
Dr Somnath Tripathi, retired professor of Sampoornanand Sanskrit University and active with Swaraj India nowadays agrees with a single name, “Only Mahant ji can challenge Modi here. He is a respected figure across social sections. It would be a befitting homage to former Mahant of Sankatmochan i.e. his father Virbhadra Mishra who was anti-fascist throughout his life”.
Mahant ji alias Prof. Vishwabhar Nath Mishra is listed as a possible common candidate of opposition in the official list of Congress also. Around a week back, there was a lot of talk about Hardik Patel too but the scenario has changed after Priyanka Gandhi met with the Bhim Army chief in hospital and thereafter he announced his desire to contest from Benares.
Although he is an outsider and people here have not heard much about him, caste-wise distribution favors Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad. Around 3 lakh muslims, 1.5 lakh Yadav, 1.5 lakh Patels (Kurmi), more than fifty thousand SC and non-Yadav OBC segments may come on a single platform if Azad is fielded as a common candidate. The problem is to woo 2.5 lakhs Brahmins and around one lakh Bhumihars.
To cut into Brahmins and Bhumihars, there are various suggestions. One of them is a simple prescription to field Mahant ji and Azad together, former being in the ornamental capacity just to eat into the BJP’s Brahmin base. In this situation one more candidate would be needed from Bhumihar community. These are just speculations but people here are highly aware of the permutations and combinations that may come in near future.
Meanwhile, just after the election dates announced, Varanasi witnessed a congregation of people's movements from half a dozen states having more than 100 organisations as participants that deliberated for a couple of days on March 12-13 at Sarva Sewa Sangh, Rajghat about their role in elections and future strategies.
The major participants were those organisations that work on agrarian crisis and farm distress, like Krishi Bhumi Bachao Morcha, a large group spanning whole of Poorvanchal. Located in the suburb of city, Sarv Sewa Sangh has been a traditional venue of people’s movements. Many civil society groups from Benares also participated and devised a common strategy under the slogan, “Modi Bhagao, Desh Bachao”.
Things are slowly gearing up in Varanasi. Journalists are gradually landing in the city. The hustle bustle of Shivratri is also over now. City is preparing for Holi celebrations but with much caution. RSS cadre are openly claiming that Modi will once more perform an extravaganza, just like surgical strike to woo the voters.
Whatsapp messages are being circulated asking Hindu boys to play Holi with Muslim girls in reaction to the controversial Surf Excel advertisement. A prominent civil society member and activist Jagriti Rahi is cautious of these messages. She says, “Anything can happen around Holi. They can instigate communal riots too. We need to make people aware.”
Contrary to Jagriti’s apprehensions one major difference in public attitude is quite visible here. This time people are united. Communal hatred that underlined 2014 elections is now no more on people’s minds. In any case, if something goes wrong, people of Benares will give a befitting reply to perpetrators. They have their fingers crossed and fists tight for now.