Will the Ganga flow quietly?

Communal polarization looms thickly over the Varanasi election, owing to Modi’s candidature

Pradeep Kapoor Varanasi 

Varanasi never sleeps. Here mornings begin earlier than other places, maybe at 3 am when thousands of the Hindu devout head for a dip in the holy Ganga. It’s 5 am — sunrise is still 30 minutes away — but the chaiwallah near TulsiGhat is a busy man, furiously filling up really small earthen pots (kulhars) and passing them out to a small crowd of people. The people are chirpy and ready to engage in serious debate on who the residents of this ancient city should vote for. Varanasi is seeing one of the biggest electoral contests of the 2014 elections — between the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, NarendraModi, AamAdmi Party (AAP) leader ArvindKejriwal and the Congress’s local candidate, Ajay Rai.

Gufran, a weaver carrying a pile of saris to the local satti — a place where the famous Benarasi saris are auctioned — is clear about whom he wants to vote for. “We have been voting for the Congress all these years and now that we have Ajay Rai, who has always stood by us, we will back him.” He claims that most of the weavers from his area are backing the Congress. What about Kejriwal? “He is a good man, but an outsider,” remarks Gufran, wheeling his cycle off.

A youth, a student of Banaras Hindu University, is sitting on a bench, reading the local newspaper. He categorically says that Modi has a lot of support from everyone. He recalls the grand road show Modi organized when he went to file his nomination. “Was it not very big?” he asks.

 

Told that it is alleged there were many outsiders, he retorts, “Maybe a few, but there was real excitement at seeing him.” He is quite sure that eventually it will become a no-contest.

But, if the efforts of AAP and the Congress are anything to go by, the contest could get interesting. The social profile cannot allow any candidate to rest easy. In the last elections, senior BJP leader MurliManohar Joshi won by a wafer-thin margin of 17,000 votes. And his victory became possible only due to the fact that MukhtarAnsari of the QuamiEktaDal took away all the minority votes — driving the Congress to third position.

This time, the minorities have been served a bigger responsibility: making sure they vote tactically and unitedly to beat Modi. It’s a tough task under ordinary circumstances, but more so when it could be interpreted as an outcome of communal polarization. 

Every street corner shop is witnessing election talk and what the polls mean for a city that Mark Twain memorably called older than even legends. PappuChai shop in downtown Varanasi is a hub of major discussion. Scores of people converge all through the day to drink tea and converse. At times, two separate groups are visibly engaged in a slanging match. While there is vociferous support for Modi, there are spaces that are clearly inhabited by people who oppose him and the rise of Hindu communalism that is taking place due to his presence. They fear revival of the contentious Gyanvyapi mosque dispute and the overturning of years of communal amity. These are fascinating debates taking place in the backdrop of the chaos and ordinariness so typical of this old city.

Modi made it clear that he is contesting from Varanasi in response to the call of Mother Ganga. He was nuanced about the importance that the river occupies in the lives of people by the Mahant of SankatMochan, Dr VishambharMishra, who promised to get the Ganga cleaned. If the Varanasi election gets communally polarized, which seems likely, Modi will have a runaway victory. Will the river flow quietly after that?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2014