It’s 10 pm at Dashashwamedh ghat and the chatter is on. In Varanasi, the high-profile constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is politics that now dominates the discourse at ghats. This time, they are talking about the promised cleaning of the Ganga, which has not yet happened, although they do appreciate that the ghats are now much cleaner on the surface. “Choubis ghanta jhaadu chalti rahti hai,” says Gopal Sardar, a Yadav and a Samajwadi Party supporter by default. As anywhere else in UP, community dictates political choice. Most Dalits and almost all Jatavs root for BSP while many Muslims say their first preference is the SP. Upper castes in general claim to be inclined towards the BJP, whose outreach among non-Yadav OBCs seems to have impressed Nonia, Mallah, Prajapati and Mauryas.
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“This argument is not a fight but zest, a daily routine at night,” says priest Sudhir Kumar Mishra of Shyam Mandir, Kachouri gali. “After all, we have to enjoy this festival of election.” Mishra is a supporter of Modi but sometimes criticises him for the fun. “Modi has cast a spell here. I speak one word against him and watch them fight,” he says. Rajkumari Sahani is selling diyas and flowers. Her brothers own a number of boats at the ghat. “We have always voted for the BJP,” she says. She is worried about reported plans by an NGO to install jetties in front of ghats to allow people daily viewings of Ganga aarti. Fearing it might snatch away their livelihood, boatmen with Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Samiti convened a meeting of boatmen of all 84 ghats in January and threatened a campaign against the BJP. Though the administration denied any such plan then, the fear remains. At nearby Assi ghat, the prime minister last May launched the country’s first solar powered e-boats, giving 11 to the Mallahs here.
Shyamlal Prajapati, who belongs to Kumhar (potter) community, says “Whether the BJP wins or loses, we vote for it.” He lives in Bajardiha area of Varanasi Cantonment. At Ram Bhawan Residence at Munshi Ghat, Ashu Kannoujia, 22, who is of the Dhobi community, says, “In the Lok Sabha poll we voted for Modiji. This time our vote is going to the BSP. Mayawati talks about the poor. Go to Shivpur and see the hundreds of homes she had given to the poor in Kanshiram Awas.” But Om Prakash Pandey says “Modi needs to be given time. Hindus are being demoralised. We need something.”
At Golgadda market, Naseer says, “Akhilesh has done a good job, we will vote for the SP-Congress.” Parvez Mallick agrees. When Shiv Jaiswal, who runs a paan shop, says he will vote for the BJP, Muslim shopkeepers ask him what Modi has done. Jaiswal replies, “When Muslims vote for SP and BSP, it does not become an issue. Why it is so when Hindus vote for BJP?” Anil Kumar Agrahari contradicts the view that Banias are unhappy with demonetisation. “Only big businessmen were unhappy. Chhota Bania masti me hai.”
Of Varanasi’s five assembly seats, the three in the city – Varanasi South, North and Cantonment — are held by the BJP while Sewapuri and Rohania are with the SP. In Varanasi South, the BJP replaced seven-time MLA Shyamdeb Roy Choudhury with the young Neelkanth Tiwari, while the SP-Congress has fielded former MP Rajesh Mishra and the BSP Rakesh Tripathi. In Varanasi North, sitting BJP MLA Ravindra Jaiswal faces Samad Chudhary from SP-Congress; he was in the SP but is now contesting as the Congress candidate. BSP candidate Sujit Kumar Maurya belongs to a community being wooed by the BJP. In Varanasi Cantonment, MLA Jyotsna Srivastava’s son Sourabh has got the BJP ticket, upsetting some leaders who feel the seat has become a family pocket borough. Sourabh’s father Harish Srivastava earlier represented the seat. The BJP’s Kisan Morcha general secretary, Sujeet Singh Tikka, and veteran leader Ashok Kumar have rebelled as independents. The Congress has fielded Anil Shrivastava.