Varanasi election: symbolism overtakes reality

By Vanya Mehta,,

Varanasi, the Hindu spiritual capital of India, went to polls on Monday in a symbolic battle between the BJP’s Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, both also prime ministerial candidates of their respective parties.

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Modi’s decision to contest from this seat is undeniably provocative. Protectors of the Ganga River, swamis, Hindu religious figures, RSS pracharaks, and thousands of others are likely to be enraptured by the Hindu nationalist bent of Modi’s party. His promise to reduce pollution of the Ganga and clean the city are easy win points, given these measures are also long overdue. However, transplanting the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project on the ghats of the Ganga River could be potentially disastrous for the hundreds of people who live and work on the steps of the river (as it was for those who lived in the slums near the Sabarmati).

BJP workers blocking the street in Varanasi

As Modi and Kejriwal politicize Benares, the mood is growing increasingly aggressive and agitated. A veteran local journalist complained of the BJP’s attempt to create communalism in a city that historically has not had tension between Hindus and Muslims. “Varanasi is sensible enough to determine who is good and who is not,” he said. “They are putting doubt on the sensibility of Benares and creating a fast food philosophy…Modi has taken over and become a product with no competition.”

A group of around 500 BJP supporters gathered on May 9, 2014, in front of Benares Hindu University to protest the denial of Narendra Modi to getting permission to do an aarti ceremony on Assi Ghat. One of about 10 women in the crowd, Shama Singh, proudly stood in a sari in the heat fuming about this supposed denial. “Everyone is allowed to go house to house to campaign,” she said. “So why isn’t he getting permission in Benares to do the Ganga aarti?” The Election Commission stopped Modi from conducting this aarti due to the crowds and potential agitation it might create in the area.

If it were not for the flag-waving, topi-throwing Samajwadi Party supporters in small number on the streets of the city, one might forget that we are still in Uttar Pradesh, where two parties, the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have changed the face of caste politics in India. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, BSP candidate Ansari did not win but still secured 1,85,911 votes, coming second after BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi. Behind bars, he is considered by some to be a symbol to voters that Congress candidate Ajai Rai (who followed in 2009 with 1,23,874 votes) is the one to be supported by Muslims and other non-BJP voters.

Ship building on the banks of Ganga

Uniquely, voters in Varanasi have an option to vote for a party that doesn’t fall on their caste or religion. The Aam Aadmi Party is banking on their image as well-meaning, anti-corruption politicians. In the days before the election, AAP volunteers could be seen at every major intersection, standing with tape over their mouths holding brooms, those without tapes over their mouths spoke to locals, using promising rhetoric and speaking out vehemently against the BJP. Their success has led to the support of several Muslim leaders in the city.

AAP-Benares general secretary Vinod Kumar joined AAP an extremely symbolic gesture: he left behind thirty-year-long support for the BJP and the RSS. Several of the AAP supporters are getting hassled here and there by BJP party campaigners but according to Kumar, the AAP party campaign tactic has been to remain silent. “They want us to retaliate and therefore we do not respond to their instigations.” He spoke with a sense of content at leaving behind these Hindu organizations for what he believes to be a better alternative.

The survey of 2,000 voters from different sections of society conducted by the Benaras Hindu University published in Times of India shows some interesting statistics on the mindset of voters in the area.

“In Muslim community 40% believe it is a question of political survival for Kejriwal, while 30% point out media spotlight and party’s strategy, and 15% see it as a public pressure. Majority of upper caste (45%) and backward class (46%) people describe Kejriwal’s fight as an attempt to be in media spotlight.

Regarding the candidature of Modi, 55% Muslims say that Varanasi is a secure seat and he is here to polarise vote. Among dalits 54% see Varanasi as secure seat for Modi while 30% believe that he will polarise vote. But 48% women, 36% of upper caste and 28% backward class people say that Modi is fighting for development.”

A Dalit-Muslim organization supporting the AAP, the Momin Conference, is an organization founded pre-independence in 1925that sought to incorporate Muslims peacefully into a new independent India, offered its office to the Aam Aadmi Party workers in the Sigra district of Varansi. The current working president, Shakeel Ansari, was raised in Benares and exports carpets to the U.S.

“Many people think that Muslims are in the minority but I grew up in this area and I don’t feel that,” Ansari said. “There have been very few communal tensions if you compare to other states. People work together.” Despite that, Modi’s decision to contest from Varanasi, according to some, is a direct effort to divide the Hindu and Muslim populations for votes, but Ansari believes this has “not been very successful.”

Mufti-e-Shehar Banaras Abdul Batin Nomani

Imam of Gyan Vapi Masjid and Mufti-e-Shehar Banaras Mufti Abdul Batin Nomani has come out in support of Arvind Kejriwal, but he generally expresses the sentiment that the Muslim voters cannot be defined by any one view. In an interview, he expressed some distaste for the number of journalists coming to him asking for an expert view on the Muslim vote.

The weaving community in Benares, a dying trade in these days, doesn’t appear to see a great alternative in any direction. Ilias Ansari, who comes from a long line of weavers, decided to leave the weaving trade entirely eight years ago because he could not adequately feed his family. He opened up a chai shop. “The prices for yarn are rising rapidly,” Ansari said, citing figures that had doubled in the past ten years. He and others also added that fewer workers are available to do the weaving work.

Momin Conference president Shakeel Ansari said that a good alternative not proposed by any politician would be to introduce a national institute for fashion design in Benares to help cultivate the weavers as artists rather than just viewing them as labourers.

The national attention turning towards Varanasi is exciting for some but painful for others. The party campaigners clog the traffic; bring their aggression out onto the streets. The symbolism has been supplanted on the city in a way that even the residents appear to have trouble making any sense out of it. I saw swathes of children run to and fro on the streets yelling “Modi!” chants and throwing rocks as their elders look on and shake their heads disapprovingly.

Congress’s Ajai Rai may have a head-start since he has been in the area for some time, but if he doesn’t, Benares will be represented in the Lok Sabha by a politician who does not have any connection to the community and arguably minimal sense of the obstacles its populace faces.

The microcosm of Benares cannot be applied to the entirety of the country, but in this Lok Sabha election, the parallels are hard to ignore. The media suddenly turn its microphones to the minorities, and parliamentarians promise growth to gain power: an age-old, but sad, story of politics.