A symbol of Hinduism yet populated by a large number of Muslims, a city struck by terror but crying for progress, Varanasi presents a study in contrast.
Blasts at the Sankat Mochan temple in 2006 did prove an election issue in 2009, polarising the votes between Murli Manohar Joshi and Mukhtar Ansari, but the next attack, on Dashashwamedh Ghat close to Kashi Vishwanath temple in 2010, is no longer a raging issue here. Voters here want better roads, better power supply and a cleaner city. An estimated 20 per cent of the population and practically all traffic policemen wear masks to breathe comfortably in the dust enveloping a city that gets 50 lakh tourists every year.
“Development is the only agenda for locals,” said Rakesh Trivedi, BJP vice-president of Kashi region. “As literacy has increased (89.6 per cent in 2011), the agenda of Hindutva and terrorism no more dominates the new generation who want job opportunities,” said Professor Mahendra Nath Rai, arts dean at Banaras Hindu University.
Narendra Modi set his priorities at his Varanasi rally on December 20, talking about power, problems of the power loom sector, Ganga pollution and the overall development of Kashi. He did flaunt his Hindutva credentials, though, offering prayers at temples and saying that he had come from the land of Somnath to seek the blessings of Baba Vishwanath.
It was Joshi, the sitting MP, who raised issues of terrorism, national security and corruption. But by the time he started campaigning in Varanasi (before he was shifted to Kanpur), he too was distributing booklets and posters on work he has done with his local area development funds.
Joshi struggled in 2009. He finished fourth in the two rural assembly segments, but did enough in the three urban ones to win by just 17,211 votes. In 2012, the BJP won all three urban seats with the SP and the Apna Dal sharing the other two.
Muslims account for three lakh of 16 lakh voters. The rest include two lakh Brahmins, 2.5 lakh Kurmi Patels, 2.5 lakh Vaishyas, one lakh each Bhumihars and Scheduled Castes, and 70,000 Chaurasiyas. The BJP’s eye is on the Brahmin, Patel and Vaishya votes and a section of the Bhumihar and SC ones.
Of the Muslims, more than 80 per cent are Sunnis who traditionally vote against the BJP. The 20 per cent Shias are traditional supporters of the BJP in UP. Most people in both sects are poor and work in the power loom sector that is shrinking because of poor power supply. Except in the poshest areas, the city gets power less than 16 hours a day.
The BJP is optimistic about the Patels. “They had voted for the Apna Dal and the BSP in 2009. But this time they are impressed with Modi’s project of building a grand statue of Sardar Patel in Gujarat,” said a leader.
The BJP has won this seat five times so far, beginning 1991 during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, followed by Shankar Prasad Jaiswal three times and Joshi in 2009. Of 14 seats in the Kashi region, it is the only one the BJP holds. Trivedi, the party’s regional vice president, senses Modi’s candidature will bring victory not only in the UP neighbourhood but in Bihar’s Buxar, Sasaram, Ara and Chhapra too.
The Samajwadi Party has fielded Kailash Charaisya, the BSP Vijay Prakash Jaiswal who was the Apna Dal nominee in 2009.