More than the numbers — which were staggeringly large — what was striking was the near-hysterical frenzy among the supporters who poured into the streets of Varanasi for Narendra Modi’s nomination.
When Modi first emerged before the public in an open truck at Sardar Patel Chowk, a sea of saffron seemed to rise in a tidal wave of excitement and anticipation. Squeezed into a corner of a media van that hundreds of young men were jostling and pushing to clamber onto, we had a vantage view of a mega roadshow that looked more like a festive post-results victory rally than a routine nomination day. The debilitating heat of a 40 degrees summer afternoon was made worse by a mass of humanity pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. But while I quickly slapped on a wet handkerchief on my head to cope with the scalding sun, all around me everyone else was undeterred. As residents showered rose petals on a cavalcade that inched along a three-kilometre distance in as many hours, women draped in BJP saris danced around the ‘dhols’, deliriously shouting slogans like “Vrindavan mein Krishan Kanhiya; Kashi Mein Hain Modi Bhaiyya.”
With literally no room to breathe, Modi’s Varanasi Moment was a grand show of political strength; an expression of confidence that was theatrical in impact, without losing its authenticity. It was the worst day for an otherwise silent prime minister (who has clearly been abandoned by his party) to argue that there was “no Modi wave”.
While only counting day can prove or disprove how real the surge is for Modi, the images from Varanasi on Thursday afternoon brilliantly captured how one individual has succeeded in filling a leadership vacuum that the Congress only has itself to blame for. Looking at the mesmerised followers, it was also more than evident that the BJP campaign is now all about the Cult of Modi.
Party strategists like Arun Jaitley have already conceded that the approval ratings of its PM candidate are about 10-15 points higher than that of the party. In Varanasi, party workers admitted that so angry were locals about the filth in the Ganga, the absent sewage system and the missing infrastructure, that had any other BJP leader contested the seat (especially the outgoing MP, Murli Manohar Joshi) he would have lost. People had showed up in massive numbers for Modi, they said, not so much for the BJP.
A professor from Banaras Hindu University remarked that he hadn’t seen this sort of political emotionalism since the 1990s in the aftermath of the BJP’s Ram mandir movement. It was an interesting and controversial parallel, precisely because as Modi re-invents himself for the national stage, he would prefer to do without the analogy. That re-positioning was evident in his invocation of the Ganga Jamuna tehzeeb, his referencing of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Mirza Ghalib as he blogged about Varanasi and in his salutations to the Buddha. In doing so, Modi was clearly addressing two electoral audiences simultaneously — the voters of the constituency and the larger national audience, especially fence sitters, who may remain wary about how inclusive a leader he would be.
This time, on paper and in his choice of words he struck a perfectly politically correct chord. Yet, the truth is that in a campaign strategy otherwise designed masterfully, the weakest link so far is Modi’s failure in bridging the gap with India’s Muslims. Yes, Muslims never vote as a monolith and yes, the courting of conservative clerics by other parties in the name of secularism is hardly an exercise in credibility. But notwithstanding the cynical weaknesses and blots of the other political players when it comes to Muslim voters, as an ascending star on the political firmament and also because of his own controversial history, this is a conversation that Narendra Modi needs to begin more than anyone else.
As Modi’s convoy wove its way through the packed streets, it also passed an old mosque in the city’s Nadesar area. Through the masjid’s carved window frames I saw men in skull caps who had gathered for the afternoon Namaz staring out at the rush of people and cars. Those I had a chance to speak with continued to be circumspect about their political options, recognising them to be limited. Even in a city whose history has been built on the economic and cultural interdependencies of all communities — Muslim weavers sell to Hindu retailers, Bismillah Khan played the Shehnai for the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the Ganga is organic to the city’s composite culture — there was a quiet wariness among Muslims of what this election may mean for them. This vulnerability cannot be dismissed or ignored just because the election can be won without their votes.
That doesn’t mean that the Congress has made an effective argument either in complaining to the Election Commission about the media coverage for Modi’s mammoth display of force in Varanasi. In fact it also sounded confused when it accused Modi’s road-show of showing a preference for a particular religion — Madan Mohan Malviya, whose statue Modi first garlanded, may have been a founding member of the Hindu Mahasabha but he was also the president of the Indian National Congress for four terms.
But if Modi’s new political beginning is to be from a historical city whose ancient ghats epitomise the eternal cycle of life and death, he must begin a more compassionate dialogue with a community that remains fearful of the BJP and of him. Some say, Modi can only do so after the elections, were he to win. But with the strength of numbers on his side, Varanasi would be a perfect place to start.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal