India’s final vote: In temple town Varanasi, Modi and sarees are winners

Modi is expected to comfortably win his seat, but the margin of victory could reveal how his party is doing nationally.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waves to the public as he returns after filing his nomination papers to contest as a candidate for the parliamentary elections in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh state, India, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Varanasi will go to polls on June 1 in the seventh and last phase of the six-week-long election. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, waves to the public as he returns after filing his nomination papers to contest as a candidate for the parliamentary elections in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh state, India, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Varanasi will go to polls on June 1 in the seventh and last phase of the six-week-long election [Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo]

Varanasi, India – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a reputation for mounting spectacular road shows replete with a fawning audience showering petals of marigold flowers on him.

It’s a pattern India has witnessed across multiple cities over the past many weeks, amid the largest election that the world has ever known. And the optics have worked well for Modi in the past in Varanasi, the 4,000-year-old city in the politically vital state of Uttar Pradesh, which is his parliamentary constituency. Here, the congested lanes and bylanes amplify the perception of a packed crowd spilling over for a glimpse of the prime minister.

That is how it was again on May 13, when Modi led a 5km-long (3-mile) roadshow through the city that sits on the banks of the Ganges river. Some rumours, amplified by some local journalists, suggest that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brought in supporters from neighbouring districts. But as Varanasi gets ready to vote on June 1 in the final phase of India’s mammoth election, hardly anyone in this city, which holds deep religious significance for Hindus, is under any doubt about Modi’s almost-certain win from the constituency.

“The only point of contention is whether Prime Minister Modi will win by the same margin as last time,” said Vishwambhar Mishra, a professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Benaras Hindu University and the president of Sankat Mochan Foundation, Varanasi, which campaigns for cleaning the Ganges, a holy river for Hindus. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Modi won by a margin of about 600,000 votes.

The margin of Modi’s expected win is not just a statistic – the BJP will be hoping that Modi’s campaign in Varanasi and his presence in the region will also help it sweep 13 neighbouring parliamentary seats where it faces tough competition from the opposition INDIA alliance.

In Varanasi, Modi is up against a familiar foe: Ajay Rai of the Congress, India’s biggest opposition party. Rai contested against Modi in 2019, too, and is not predicted to put up much of a fight against the PM. In fact, the Congress party’s decision to stick with Rai as its candidate has upset some of its cadre – such as Anoop Mishra, a former congressman and a hotelier who left the party. “Prime Minister Modi will be amply rewarded this time. Rai cannot do much,” Anoop Mishra said.

Modi’s nationwide appeal aside, the PM’s imprint is visible across Varanasi, one of the most densely populated cities in India. The city’s biggest attraction is its historic Kashi Vishwanath Temple. For centuries, pilgrims had to navigate narrow, crowded lanes to access the temple. Now, a new highway and widened roads make it easier for them to commute between the airport and the temple. At the temple, paramilitary forces manage the crowd, streamlining their movement with military precision.

In Varanasi, religion is also commerce, and there, too, Modi has delivered. The city received 5.5 million visitors in 2014, the year Modi first contested and won from Varanasi, and became prime minister. In 2023, that number stood at 54 million – an almost tenfold increase. Modi, in 2018, launched a river port in Varanasi on the Ganges.

Today, it is often near-impossible to get a hotel room even in peak summer – which is typically not peak season for people to visit the city. And the hotels themselves do not look like they used to: Flush with money from business, they have had makeovers.

A city that for long used to primarily cater to poorer pilgrims, who would trudge from different parts of the country in search of salvation by visiting hundreds of deities or taking a dip in the Ganges, has now been chiselled into a destination attracting people across income demographics.

Yet, there are rumblings of discontent too on the banks of the Ganges. Bhanu Chaudhari, a college graduate forced to work as a boatman because he cannot find other work, took this writer to show the eerily picturesque Manikarnika Ghat, where fires at the funeral pyres rage all the time. There’s an anger burning inside Chaudhari, too.

“There is a lot of anger in people as there are no jobs,” he said.

He insisted that many residents of Varanasi shared his frustration. As the boat he took this writer on quietly moved along the famed ghats of the river, it became apparent that many parts of the city remain shrouded in poverty and darkness.

Mishra, the professor, said Modi’s promise to clean the river also remains unfulfilled. His account on social media platform X is filled with images of untreated sewage flowing into the river.

Still, Varanasi boasts something rare in today’s India. Modi is a polarising prime minister and was only recently accused of anti-Muslim hate speech. But Varanasi has been devoid of communal tension, despite being home to a disputed mosque that resides next to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

That intercommunity peace is essential for the city’s fragile saree business. Varanasi is one of India’s biggest silk saree hubs. Banarasi brocade, which comes from the city, is popular among Hindu and Muslim brides. A majority of the city’s weavers are Muslim.

Like most industries, the saree business was hit by COVID-19 but has since recovered. “The market has been very good of late,” said Hasrat Muhammad, one of country’s top saree weavers. A national award winner, he is barely able to keep up of the furious increase in demand for his silk sarees and brocades.

But Modi’s anti-Muslim comments – he referred to the community as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” – won’t be forgotten easily by Varanasi’s Muslims, who constitute 20 percent of the city’s population.

They won’t be voting for Modi, Muhammad insisted. They will, he said, vote for the opposition INDIA alliance, which in Uttar Pradesh is led by the Congress Party and the Samajwadi Party.

That likely won’t matter on June 4, when the results of India’s seven-phase election are counted. Yet, it’s a reminder of the deep divisions that lurk under the surface of a city being held together by sarees and a history of communal coexistence.

Source: Al Jazeera