Candidates from Varanasi must note: you can only ever own half the city.
The city of Varanasi is more myth than reality. Some believe that it is balanced on the tip of Shankar’s trident. Because of this, the city is regarded as the ultimate destination to attain moksh (salvation) by some Hindus. However, Varanasi is also linked to great saints like Buddha, Kabir and Ravidas, all of whom criticised the vices of Hinduism.
If there is Manikarnika Ghat here, there is also Lahartara and Kabir Chaura — the place where Kabir was born and where he worked, claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. It was in Varanasi that Tulsidas composed Ramcharitmanas. It was here, in Sir Gobardhanpur, that the famous Dalit saint, Ravidas, was born. The city, which at first glance may seem homogeneous, is in fact a synthesis of opposites. It is a city of several internal contradictions. It is said that whoever owns Varanasi only truly owns half of it.
“Banaras”, the composition of the famous Hindi poet, Kedarnath Singh, brings out its various facets and nuances. “If you see it unexpectedly/ Strange is its composition/ Half is in water/ Half is in prayer/ Half is in flowers/ Half is in corpse/ Half is in sleep/ Half is in shankh/ If you look carefully/ Half is there/ And half is not there”. Candidates standing from Varanasi in the Lok Sabha elections should remember these lines.The ones who lose should remember that at least half of Varanasi is still theirs.
Muslims comprise a large section of the city’s population, numbering around 2.5 lakh. World famous for its harmonious cultural legacy, Varanasi is home to both Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi and the late shehnai maestro, Ustad Bismillah Khan. On the political front, Varanasi was where socialist leaders Jayaprakash Narayan and Raj Narain worked extensively. Post Independence, it was also the epicentre of the powerful communist movement that emerged in the Poorvanchal region.
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The famous communist leader, Sarju Pandey, spent much time interacting with people in this city. Varanasi was also the native place of Kamalapati Tripathi, the one-time Brahmin face of the Congress. The entire city and much of UP ardently admired him. The “young turk”, Chandra Shekhar, who later became prime minister, was also strongly influenced by Varanasi.
Gradually, however, Varanasi became the fortress of the RSS, which gave it a predominantly Hindu image. In all general elections since 1991, the BJP candidate from Varanasi has won, except when the Congress’s Rajesh Mishra won in 2004.
In Varanasi, each of the Brahmin, Muslim, Patel and Vaishya communities number 2.5 lakh or more. If any two of these communities were to fully back one party, its candidate would be sure to win. Narendra Modi has a good relationship with the Patel community, and the BJP has a strong rapport with the Brahmin and Vaishya communities. However, given that Arvind Kejriwal belongs to the Vaishya community, the Vaishyas, Muslims and other secular, communist and socialist forces, which are all strongly allied against Modi, might vote for him in large numbers.
Varanasi is also considered the political, cultural and economic capital of the 12 districts of Poorvanchal and the 10 Bhojpuri districts that lie on the border of UP and Bihar. The BJP believes that it can influence the Lok Sabha constituencies that fall in these 22 districts by fielding Modi from Varanasi. Indeed, if it is able to establish a connection, it could influence the entire Hindi belt, and perhaps get the numbers to form government. Being an important pilgrimage spot for the Hindus, Varanasi can easily be used to spread the political agenda of Hindutva.
However, these forces tend to overlook the fact that Varanasi is not merely a city but also the nerve centre of Poorvanchal. In opposition to the strategy of spreading Hindutva through Varanasi, SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav has declared his intention to fight the upcoming election from Azamgarh. The Muslim population of Varanasi is scared to vote for Modi, and in this situation, the SP is trying to strengthen its Muslim and Yadav combine.
Additionally, the SP’s presence might sway the OBCs of Poorvanchal away from the BJP. The SP has a strong impact on 15 of the 32 Lok Sabha seats in the Poorvanchal region. However, one effect of this contest might be that the confrontation between the Hindutva and Muslim-SP forces will increase, which may convert the entire Hindi heartland into a tense region.
The writer is professor, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute,University of Allahabad