It was from here that the slogan Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi had emanated and reverberated across the country in 2014. The ancient part of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency is Kashi for the believers. It beckons them in life. And in death.
On the banks of the Ganga, the city is the epicentre of the ever-growing god market that’s livelihood, besides faith, for a mix of forward, middle and subaltern castes: Brahmins who perform rituals; Nishads who are boat-rowers; horticulturists who grow and vend flowers; barbers the devotees seek in celebration and in bereavement; Yadav milkmen and others in trade, tourism and the Banarasi sari business.
The BJP’s Hindutva seamlessly transcends castes in the city perceived as its citadel since 1991 — when the party galvanised by LK Advani rode to power on the Ram temple wave. Its political hotspot, Assi Chowraha and Manikarnika Ghat, the Hindu’s mythological space for moksha, are among the many milestones of Varanasi. The BJP’s campaign here is driven more by the PM’s fan club than by his party colleagues.
Why? The cadre is miffed with the party brass that has sidelined the popular MLA of Varanasi South, Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari. They are upset by the nomination on dynasty lines of Saurabh Srivastava for the cantonment seat. He is the son of a couple who alternated for years as legislators.
The BJP’s fight is with the Congress on both seats and in the Muslim-dominated Varanasi North. Other segments of the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat are Sewapuri and Rohaniya, where Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel’s estranged mother Krishna is up against the BJP.
These are seats where the Kurmis wield clout. Factionalism in the Apna Dal vote may split their vote. But they’d go largely with the pro-BJP party led by Anupriya. “The Kurmis vote out of competition with the Yadavs,” admitted a sociologist inclined towards the Samajwadi Party.
For the extremely backward class vote that enhances winnability, the contest was between the BJP and BSP, she said.
That makes Muslims a factor in varying digresses on all five seats, supplying the informal Modi fan club the adrenaline it needs to reach out to fence sitters that include salaried-class Brahmins.
The latent polarisation makes Modi appear to his fans a cult figure. At the famed Pappu chai shop on Assi crossing, political discourse starts with demonetisation’s downsides; job losses and glacial pace of development in the city. But it ends invariably with reaffirmation of support for the PM. An instant vote among those crowding the shop went 60:40 in his favour.
On an early morning visit to Manikarnika Ghat, I heard a Yadav and a Saini (boatman) parroting the Modi name. Kailash Kumar who led me to the cremation platforms is a Modi admirer. What caste are you? I asked. “The Mayawati caste,” replied the Jatav boy.
When a lone Saini youth voiced support for Akhilesh Yadav, he was booed. They were particularly severe on him when he said Muslims were as much Indian as Hindus are.
At an eatery famous for its Bihari cuisine, a Modi acolyte forced himself on the table where I sat talking to Sarvodaya activist Ravindra Dubey. His loud, emotive pitch for the PM forced us to leave.
Dubey predicted a tough battle in Varanasi. At his Tulsi Ghat abode, IIT professor and Mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, VN Mishra, was critical of “reckless digging up” of Kashi for development. He said the ancient city’s spiritual lore was in its antiquity that has to be preserved, not altered.
Mishra saw in the casting aside of homegrown BJP leaders a bid to show the supremacy of the Modi lure. But SP MLC Shatarudra Prasad was confident of the alliance led by his party breaking the BJP’s 26-year hold on Varanasi.
Be that as it may. The city resonates still with cries of Har, Har Modi. We’d have to wait to see whether it’s also Ghar, Ghar Modi.
Vinod Sharma is the political editor of Hindustan Times