Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh – Varanasi – considered India’s holiest cities – where Hindus from all over the world come to wash off their sins in the river Ganga or to die to attain moksha or salvation, has turned into a political battleground.
The temple city, which goes to polls on Monday in the last phase of staggered elections, is in the spotlight as Narendra Modi, the opposition prime ministerial candidate, is contesting from here.
The leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to ‘start the journey of development from ghats (steps of the river) of Varanasi’.
But many among the nearly 200,000 boatmen in the city who depend on the river for sustenance remain sceptical.
Vinod Kumar Sahni is busy chiselling planks of wood to make a boat at Manikarnika Ghat unmindful of the bodies burning nearby and the foul smell. “We are boatmen of Nishad caste who helped Lord Ram cross the Ganga,” the 27-year-old boatman told Al Jazeera.
“Nobody can clean this river, let alone Modi. We have seen the BJP for 20 years. If the BJP is sincere about cleaning, why did Murli Manohar Joshi (winner in 2009) not do anything?” he asked.
Nobody can clean this river, let alone Modi. We have seen the BJP for 20 years. If the BJP is sincere about cleaning, why did Murli Manohar Joshi (winner in 2009) not do anything?
AAP as option?
Sahni’s choice this time around is Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who has also taken up the issue of cleaning river Ganga.
“No political party acknowledges our presence or takes care of our problems,” he said. He had voted for the BJP last time.
The BJP has been winning the Varanasi parliamentary seat since 1992, with the exception of 2004, when the ruling Congress party candidate Rajesh Mishra emerged victorious.
Modi has managed little time to campaign personally in this city located in northern Uttar Pradesh state, but Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, along with dozens of affiliated organisations have been canvassing on his behalf.
“They chose Varanasi for Modi because it is one of the safest seats and will also help to project him as an all India leader. They also have an eye on the upcoming 2016 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections,” Amitabh Bhattacharya, a senior journalist, told Al Jazeera.
But Kejriwal – who briefly served as chief minister of Delhi last December – with his determined campaign has become the unlikely contender to take on Modi.
Congress party candidate Ajai Rai, a local legislator, has termed both Modi and Kejriwal as outsiders in the city of 1.6 million voters.
|Varanasi is often described as BJP’s fort|
The city has been bustling with the campaigners for the AAP, in white caps, and the BJP, in saffron caps, who have come from all over the country.
Every inch of space has been taken up by various political colours. Many cows and dogs roaming the city have been drafted into political work by simply tying the party flags around their necks.
It seemed like Banarasis (people of the city locally addressed in Hindi) are thoroughly enjoying their moment under the sun with visiting journalists making them feel important.
Politics is the latest addition to the other indulgences of the city – paan (betel leaf), lassi (juice made from yoghourt) and thandai (a locally made drink prepared with a mixture of dry fruits, milk and sugar).
City of have-nots
Residents, however, say the political culture of the city has seen a sharp decline this election.
“We are proud to say that we live in the city of Lord Shiva. But he is also Neelkanth who holds poison in his throat. May be that is why people spit venom when they speak these days,” Bhattacharya said about the aggressive electioneering.
We are proud to say that we live in the city of Lord Shiva. But he is also Neelkanth who holds poison in his throat. May be that is why people spit venom when they speak these days.
“This is a city of have-nots. A picture of peaceful coexistence of various communities; there has never been violence,” he said.
Modi, who describes himself a Hindu nationalist, has been accused of not doing enough to protect Muslims during the religious violence in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 that left at least 1,000 dead, mostly Muslims.
The BJP leader, a three time chief minister of Gujarat, has denied any wrongdoing. Though no court has convicted him, the stain on his image does not seem to go away.
Varanasi has got substantial Muslim population, hence the general unease about what a possible Modi’s win might have in store.
Though there are concentrated Muslim localities, but a walk through the city’s busy bylanes displays its syncretic culture. It is one of the reasons why the Varanasi has not witnessed any communal violence in a long time.
Kejriwal has managed to get endorsements from two of the most important Muslim religious leaders of the city.
Political parties such Janata Dal (United) and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation have also put their weight behind the AAP.
The AAP leader, who has been campaigning extensively across the constituency, has been attacked with eggs and ink during his roadshows (political rallies), while many of his supporters have been beaten up.
The political discourse has become shrill as supporters of rival parties have been unwilling to listen to any criticisms.
The city might suffer from withdrawal symptoms after such hectic electioneering not seen in years.
Though Modi seems poised to win in what is often described as BJP’s fort, an upset, people say, should not be a big surprise.
“Banarasis are very particular about the katha (catechu) that is used in the paan they eat. We don’t compromise and will travel all the way to our favourite paan shop however far it is,” says AK Lari, Resident Editor of Jansandesh Times, explaining the quirks of the city.
Bhattacharya says: “On the eve of elections if people consume more bhang (cannabis leaves) than normal, who knows which way the election will go.”