Varanasi: No Cake Walk for Modi

Varanasi represents confluence of religion, education and culture epitomized by Baba Vishvanath, BHU and Bhagirathi Ganga. But, this parliamentary election has given it political identity; BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is contesting. Varanasi has suddenly become most important parliamentary constituency in India.

Since Modi chose Varanasi, two questions have been regularly raised. One, why did he choose Varanasi? Two, how easy or difficult is his win from there?
By coming to UP, Modi honoured conventional wisdom which suggests that route to PM’s chair goes through UP. But, BJP had been doing very badly in UP for long. Especially in poorvanchal (east and north-east UP), its performance had been very poor: out of 29 LS seats, it won just three in 2004 and four in 2009. The party perhaps thought that Modi’s candidature from Varanasi and UP would reverse that trend.
By making Varanasi the epicenter of its electoral strategy, BJP is trying not only to influence 29 poorvanchal seats, but also 14 seats in adjoining avadh region and nine seats in western districts of neighbouring Bihar taking the total to 52 lok sabha seats. Thus, with Modi at Varanasi, the party is targeting a massive win for its prime ministerial candidate in which UP and Bihar are going to play crucial roles. Besides that, eastern UP is poor in development; Modi can probably enthuse voters there by selling his image of ‘development man’ from Gujarat.
But, about winning chances of Modi from varanasi, we have to keep fingers crossed. With all major parties fielding candidates, Modi must be a little less worried man. If all non-BJP parties would have fielded consensus candidate or would extend support to AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, who holds record of sorts defeating Delhi Chief Minister as a debutant in politics, Modi could have sleepless nights.
Though both these options did not materialize, but the matter is still not fully closed and there could be some manipulations until 28 April, the last date for withdrawal at Varanasi. The ball has been set rolling by mafia don Mukhtar Ansari (Quami Ekta Dal candidate) withdrawing from contest. In previous LS election, Ansari, as BSP candidate, polled 185911 votes losing to Murli Manohar Joshi of BJP by slender margin of 17211 votes. His withdrawal means what? Who will be benefitted? One story doing the round is that sensing Modi’s victory, Ansari played safe as he is already in jail. Yet another is that he will not transfer his votes to Congress as he is main accused for murdering Ajai Rai’s brother Awadhesh Rai, and also because Rai had been formerly with BJP. In all likeness, he may support Arvind Kejriwal.
In that case, Varanasi becomes real battleground for Modi vs. Kejriwal contest. In 2009, Varanasi polled low: 42.5 %; if it reports higher voting percent this time, as it should looking at the high profile nature of contest, one can expect advantage BJP. The reason is not any hindutva business, but the euphoria of electing future prime minister who can deliver and make Varanasi truly international tourist destination.
Varanasi has 16 lakh voters. According to rough estimates, there are about 3 lakhs Brahimins, 1.75 lakhs Bhuihars, 1.5 lakhs Thakurs and other upper castes, 4 lakh OBCs, 2.2 lakhs Dalits, 2.5 lakh Muslims, and 1.2 lakh others (Bengalis, Panjabis, south Indians etc). Amongst OBCs, there are patels, supporters of Apna Dal, whose candidate polled 65912 votes in 2009 when Varanasi polled very low.

A high poll percentage may well swell this number as kurmis are about two lakhs and that may give advantage to BJP as Apna Dal is part of NDA now. That indicates that BJP’s developmental rhetoric is being amalgamated with caste driven coalition expansion. Earlier, induction of Udit Raj and Ram Vilas Paswan to rope in dalits, and Upendra Kushwaha to draw-in non-yadav, non-kurmi OBCs and MBCs in Bihar were made. Kushwahas are 4-5% in Bihar and 10% in UP and their clout was demonstrated when Mayawati lost power in UP for expelling Babu Singh Kushwaha, her Minister just before assembly polls 2012.
Both the potential candidates are outsiders, but the outsider-local debate has lost any sting. The reason is that both the outsiders are heavy-weights and the locals are generally defectors: Congress candidate Ajai Rai fought as SP candidate in 2009, BSP candidate Vijay Jaiswal fought on Apna Dal ticket, and SP candidate Surendra Singh Patel is a non-entity.
But what makes matters easy for Modi is Mukhtar Ansari withdrawing from contest in name of secularism. Most Hindus who take upon themselves responsibility of safeguarding secularism and Muslims both are dismayed at ugly faces of such secularists who would make common man shiver in fear.

That is the danger signal; advocacy of secularism by terrorists, mafias and criminals, as also over-dose of Modi bashing may be counterproductive. Indians have a strong sense of identifying the victim and siding with him/her. By unnecessary and irrational criticism of Modi, an impression is being created that he is being victimized. Many feel that in event of Modi becoming PM, such criticism would put government and people of India to shame internationally. Democracy is founded on dissent, but dissent should not denigrate image of country. Already, USA, UK, Australia, France and many countries are feeling embarrassed for taking unnecessarily tough stand against Modi and are looking for ways to take a u-turn anticipating Modi led government at centre.
While cleaning Ganga and giving truly international tourist stature to Varanasi remains prime issues, poor infrastructure, haphazard growth of holy-city, dying benarsi sari and handloom industry, lack of industrialization and job opportunity etc are other issues agitating people in Varanasi. If Modi wins from both Varanasi and Vadodra, it would be politically wise for Modi to retain the former. And, if he could bring Varanasi and UP anywhere close to Gujarat in respect of development, Varanasi may never allow him to return to Gujarat.
 The writer teaches politics at Christ Church College, Kanpur.

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