A man dressed up as Narendra Modi takes a boat ride on the Ganga in Varanasi on Tuesday. Picture by Sanjay Gupta
New Delhi, March 18: Religion counts so much in Varanasi that five years ago, the Samajwadi Party’s Hindu candidate had urged supporters to vote for the BJP to defeat the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Muslim nominee.
That, however, is just one of many snippets about the cauldron of caste, community and class that is Varanasi, home to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple as well as the Gyanvapi Mosque, and known as much for its educational institutions as for its saris and paan.
In this general election, Varanasi is also known as the seat handpicked for Narendra Modi.
Another nugget is that during the years the Ganga was awash with saffron, it wasn’t the usual suspects that challenged the BJP.
Not the Congress or Mayawati, nor Mulayam or any other contender from the “socialist” stable. It was the atheist CPM — then a favourite with the local Muslims, Dalits, some backward castes and even those among the upper castes who lacked the stomach for the BJP’s worldview.
The Marxists were thrice runner-up in the Ayodhya era: in 1991, when party candidate Raj Kishore lost to the BJP’s Shirish Chandra Dikshit by over one lakh votes; in 1996, when Kishore was trounced by another BJP candidate, Shankar Prasad Jaiswal, by the same margin; and in 1998, when Jaiswal routed CPM nominee Deena Nath Singh Yadav by over a lakh and a half.
In 1999, the CPM slid off Varanasi’s political map, handing second place to former Congress student leader Rajesh Mishra, who lost to Jaiswal by a more respectable margin of 57,436 votes.
In 2004, Mishra finally broke the BJP’s hegemony over Varanasi, winning by 52,859 votes. That spelled the end for Jaiswal: in the next election in 2009, former Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi took his place.
Yet, a purportedly formidable contender like Joshi, a Brahmin from neighbouring Allahabad, sneaked past his closest adversary by just 17,211 votes.
That adversary was the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mukhtar Ansari, a Robin Hood to some and not so for others.
What seemed to go against Joshi was his reputation for being “distant and inaccessible”. The Sangh slogged to get the voters enthused but even on the morning of polling, they stayed indifferent.
That was until midday. By then, the alleys of some localities were abuzz with talk that Ansari was sure of victory because of the impressive turnout of his supporters. This prodded the Hindus to turn out in hordes after lunch.
Since 1957, Varanasi has elected only Hindus to Parliament. The only exception came in the first election of 1951 when Congress candidate J.N. Wilson won from Banaras District (West) at a time the city was split into three seats.
The deftness with which political parties can jettison the “secular” fašade was visible in 2009 when Samajwadi candidate Ajay Rai — Ansari’s rival “muscle-man” who feared being turfed out if Ansari became MP — urged his supporters to vote for Joshi.
Residents say that had Rai, an upper caste Bhumihar who also commanded Brahmin and Bania votes, not issued the instruction, Joshi might have lost and perhaps even come third.
However, Varanasi tired quickly of Joshi, apparently because of his infrequent visits, alleged indifference to local issues and “inability” to build local support structures. Many voters this correspondent spoke to during the 2012 Assembly polls said they wouldn’t vote for Joshi in 2014.
Now Modi steps in with the aura of the “next Prime Minister”. Fears that his backward-class origins might put off the upper castes are countered by poll history: Jaiswal won big because the Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs of Varanasi didn’t think of him as a Bania.
The key word is “Hindutva”, and Varanasi seems to believe that the BJP alone stands for it.