The BJP may be a small player in West Bengal but it has deep roots in a “mini Bengal” in Varanasi. The city’s 12 lakh population includes about 80,000 Bengalis, spread over a string of neighbourhoods from Dashashwamedh ghat to Sonarpura. And the largest section is in Bengali Tola.
Many residents of Bangali Tola reaffirm their faith in the BJP, although they are upset that the party has denied the Varanasi South ticket to Shyamdeb Roy Choudhury, a seven-time MLA widely known as “Dada”.
“Whenever in trouble, we would approach Dada; he too often came to us. We do feel a sense of loss,” says Atul Sarkar, who runs a sweet shop. “But we have always been voting for the BJP, and will do so again,” Sarkar adds, days before voting Wednesday.
Conversely, there are some who feel the denial of Roy Choudhury has turned even non-Bengalis against the BJP. “Even some Muslims voted for Dada. He is such a nice person,” says Parvez Mallick at Muslim-dominated Golgadda. “Not only Bengalis but many sections of Hindus are unhappy, and are going against the BJP.”
Bengalis have been part of Varanasi for centuries — early settlers built most of the old houses on the riverbank — but the largest settlement happened after Partition. There is a Bangiya Samaj; Pandit Ravi Shankar and singer Hemanta Kumar were born here; Satyajit Roy’s Aparajito and Joi Baba Felunath are set in the city; Banarasi Durgotsav Sammelani has celebrated Durga Puja for 95 years and Kashi Durgotsav Samiti for 57.
The 80,000-odd Bengalis today represent only a fifth of the four lakh who once lived here, estimates Sarkar, the sweet shop owner. The more influential families have migrated to Kolkata. “There used to be many Bengali officers in railways and banks, and many in Banaras Hindu University and courts,” says Sarkar. Today, members of other communities own most of the old Bengali properties. “The community has become something of a minority. But one good thing has happened. Bengalis here are not very rigid about caste, even during marriage.”
What attracts the Bengalis of Varanasi to the BJP, when their counterparts elsewhere tend to lean either far left or towards the Trinamool Congress?
“Most Bengalis in Varanasi belong to the upper castes, mainly Brahmins,” explains Devashish Paul, who works with an NGO. “Then you mustn’t forget that they were religious and settled near the Ganga and Kashi Vishwnath. And the BJP is a party associated with the Hindu religion.”
Paul cites the example of Shambhunath Batul, who won many local body elections as an independent but lost when he contested as a Trinamool candidate.
Ajoy Mukherjee is the CPI candidate from Varanasi Cantonment. Ashok Satara, a Bengali youth, dismisses his chances: “No one else but Modiji will win here.”