Let Modi not be lost in the Varanasi fair
Varanasi: It’s 10am and the campus of the hallowed Benaras Hindu University (BHU) is bustling with activity.
A huddle at the entrance to the Department of Arts. The topic of discussion? Whether this should be Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s last year in Indian Premier League. Elections? Narendra Modi? Not even a faint blip on the radar.
7.30pm, at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most popular religious hot spot in this ancient city: The evening aarti (prayer) is just coming to a close and there’s a buzz in the air — no it’s not about the elections, but how and when one should get close to the podiums to have one’s forehead smeared with a dab of the sacred sandalwood paste.
10.30pm, McDonald’s restaurant in IP Mall, Sigra: A family of five is locked in an animated discussion. It’s not about whom they are going to vote for. They are busy chalking up a plan for the interview that the son has landed with a tech firm in Mumbai, to be followed by a quick leisure trip to Goa.
Barely two weeks before what is being termed as a make-or-break election for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Modi, this is the mood in the veritable mix that Varanasi is. So what about a “Modi wave”? Well, let’s put it very bluntly: There’s no “wave” at all. And yet, Modi is going to win this seat.
Barring the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s larger-than-life presence on gigantic flex hoardings at city vantage points, there is absolutely nothing in Varanasi right now that is even remotely suggestive of a high-decibel campaign or an “election fever” that one can naturally associate with this high-profile seat in the run-up to what could most likely be a watershed in India’s political history.
During a whirlwind tour of this ancient Hindu pilgrimage centre, the closest one could get to any perceived “election fever” was a motley crowd of supporters of Congress candidate Ajai Rai, who broke into impromptu sloganeering just outside the party’s election control room, and a rickshaw-puller sporting the ubiquitous Main hoon Aam Aadmi (I am the common man) cap, singing paeans to Aam Aadmi Party leader and candidate from Varanasi, Arvind Kejriwal.
But just scratch the surface of this seeming nonchalance and what emerges is indeed a groundswell of support for the BJP heavyweight. Forget caste equations, forget minority vote bank, forget communal sentiments, forget polarisation. If there is any one monolithic product that has managed to garner the highest brand recall among the vast majority of Varanasi’s voters, it is indeed Narendra Modi. For most of those Gulf News spoke to, a Modi win is a foregone conclusion. There is no debate on that. “There’s no Modi wave. Modi will be the winner”. And it is precisely because of this seeming paradox that the BJP stalwart will have to watch his steps and not get carried away by the euphoria of an all-pervasive, all-conquering aura.
“Varanasi is not just a city, it is a fair. And in this fair, everyone is welcome. It is a microcosm of what India stands for. There are close to 350,000 people from different parts of India who call Varanasi home. You will scarcely find a pilgrimage centre in India that is as open and accommodative as Varanasi is,” Kaushal Kishor Mishra, head of the Department of Political Science at BHU told Gulf News at the BHU campus.
Mishra’s words found an echo in what Sanjay Tripathy, an employee with a private bank in Varanasi had to share with Gulf News: “Modi will win and for that, he doesn’t need to pander to Hindu fundamentalist sentiments. His development plank is what counts and his success as the chief minister of Gujarat is what has given legitimacy to his candidature.”
And there is a word of caution as well: “The fabric of communal harmony is very strong in Varanasi and it has remained so for centuries. A Modi win should in no way be an impediment to that,” Kashinath Singh, noted Hindi author and a former professor at BHU, told Gulf News.
Varanasi charms you, enthrals you, enamours you with the richness of its ethnicity. From the ghats (river banks) to the bazaars, from the temples to the numerous serpentine lanes … it is an experience worth writing a book. And religion will be a major chapter in that book — but certainly not the whole story. Whether Modi prefers to read just that one chapter or the whole book — the choice is entirely his.