The metal fence around the statue of freedom fighter and Hindutva leader Madan Mohan Malaviya just outside the Banaras Hindu University campus has been dressed up in saffron and strung up in coloured lights in anticipation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s descent upon this city at 10 am on 4 March.
From here, he will begin the mother of all roadshows that will cut an arc across this ancient city on the Ganga, also the PM’s constituency. From Lanka to Assi Ghat, through the Muslim-majority mohallas of Madanpura and Sonpura, onwards to Gadaulia and ending up at the holiest of holy Hindu shrines, the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
For a full hour, Modi will be both bhakt and BJP leader, as he prays to Shiva. The Hindi word is ‘darshan’, a supplication, to the all-powerful and all-knowing deity, in the hope that he will part with some of his grace.
To ask what the PM will pray for, will be to break the spell the BJP is desperately hoping he will cast around the city. Clearly, the PM’s very obvious and very last-minute push in Varanasi is intended to drive the undecided as well as reinvigorate the dedicated BJP voter into pushing the button in favour of some still-struggling BJP candidates.
BJP worker, speaking on the condition of anonymityWhen Modi ji emerges from the Kashi Vishwanath temple, his forehead emblazoned with a full four-finger tilak, who will be able to resist him? Even if there is a ‘kaante-ki-takkar’ in several parts of Varanasi between the BJP and candidates belonging to the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, the truth is that the PM remains extremely popular.
The PM is the BJP’s weapon of choice. But over the last week, Modi seems to have relocated his government from Delhi to Varanasi. Clearly, the rest of the country can wait. The all-important battle for Varanasi must first be won.
Cabinet Camps in Varanasi
The roll-call of BJP leaders is led by party president Amit Shah who has been camping in Amethi Kothi for the last week, and his protégé, Sunil Bansal, who has managed the party’s UP election.
Then there is Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Textiles Minister Smriti Irani, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, Rajya Sabha MP and Amit Shah confidante Bhupendra Yadav, spokespersons Vijay Sonkar Shastri and Shrikant Sharma, junior minister Krishna Raj – you name it, and they are here, or have been here these past few days. And besides all these, at least one hundred MPs from all over the country.
Even more interesting is the presence of senior RSS leaders like Krishna Gopal and Indresh Kumar, who came to check out the progress march.
The RSS has played a key role in creating an army of pracharak-soldiers on the ground who man booths, with lists of every voter in the constituency.
But it is said that the RSS is now worried that the “decreasing turnout” in the previous fifth phase was not good for the BJP and that it must pull up its straps, especially in Varanasi.
So Why Is the BJP So Afraid of This Ancient City?
The fact is, that with less than a week to go for the election, the party is afraid that this citadel of Hindutva could crumble in the face of Varanasi’s famously unpredictable people.
“You have to understand Banaras first,” says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple and a professor of electronics engineering at BHU. “Most people land at Babatpur airport (that serves Varanasi), see the city for a few hours and declare themselves experts,” he says.
The outspoken Mahant, a respected figure in the city, has been at the forefront of the Clean Ganga campaign for years now. But Uma Bharati, the minister in charge of Ganga rejuvenation and water resource projects, has spoken to him just once on the phone. Mishra’s four letters to the prime minister on this issue have not even been acknowledged, let alone answered.
Vishwambhar Nath MishraYeh shehar sab samajthta hai. This city understands everything, and will respond when the time comes. You want to turn Banaras into a smart city, but don’t for one minute think that we are a city of fools.
From the vantage point of Mishra’s residence, right on top of Tulsi Ghat, the Ganga looks serene. But the Mahant says that about 350 million litres a day (mld) of sewage flows into it every day and the Namami Gange project hasn’t even started addressing this major issue, despite spending crores on it.
Instead of using science to solve the problem of effluents and e-coli, the PM went and put a ‘tapasvini,’ a worshipper, to head it. Is this how you want to make Kashi into Kyoto?
BJP and the Trust Issues
One of the bigger problems the BJP faces is that of trust. With so little work done on the ground since Varanasi elected Modi prime minister, people are losing patience. The city, chaotic at the best of times, has been dug up to put cables underground.
Some cleaning of the ghats has been undertaken, but who’s to stop cows and goats and other animals from doing their business in the middle of the streets?
A big part of the breach of trust has to do with the wrong choice of candidates.
The perils of dynastic politics rears its head in the shape of the candidate for Varanasi Cantt, Saurabh Srivastava, whose parents have been MLAs. Saurabh hasn’t gone to meet several elders in the city to get their blessings.
Meanwhile, the popular Shyamdeo Rai Chowdhury, who has won the Varanasi South seat seven times, has had to make way for the lesser-known Neelkanth Tiwari.
Several people are unhappy that their beloved “Dada,” who worked for all Banarasis – cutting across party or religious lines – has been so cursorily superannuated.
Banarasis Dislike Modi’s Stand-Offishness
Several Banarasis insist they like the PM. It is his discourtesy and the stand-offishness they don’t like. As Mishra puts it, Banarasis are only afraid “of Bhagwati Gange and Shiv himself”; and they refuse to be taken for granted.
The fear that Varanasi could turn upon the prime minister and return to the “let’s give Akhilesh another chance, he has also done a lot of good work,” train of thought, is putting the fear of god into the BJP.
Interestingly, both Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi are also embarking upon their roadshow in this city on Saturday – a last plea to the people of Banaras, to vote them in.
Meanwhile, from the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the PM will go to the Kaal Bhairav temple. He certainly isn’t taking any chances. All the manifestations of the gods must be appeased. If even one part of Kashi is lost, he knows it will drive a wedge through the rest of his tenure in Delhi.
The stakes are so high in Varanasi because Varanasi has put the prime minister as well as the rest of the BJP on notice.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)