Every city, ancient or modern, has synapses of speculations. In Varanasi, where the conversation still revolves around its celebrated MP, Narendra Modi, one such node is Pappu ki Chai ki Dukaan. It is a tiny hole-in-the-wall tea shop with decades old dirt staining the narrow, sooty walls, grimy corners where the dirt has caked like lost promises of long dead governments, and smoky with arguments. Its wooden benches and ramshackle chairs are considered seats of future power, where leaders like Raj Narain, the eccentric Socialist who defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977 and Dr Kasinath Singh held forth with arguments hotter than the tea. The faceless Pappu is long gone, but his spirit lives on in the adi, a patent Banaras term for places where political discussions and dialogues take place as people come and go.
The leaders are descending on Varanasi like heralds of war. Smriti Irani, wearing a steel-grey sari of cotton silk with a zari border, had flown back after lightning meetings at Raas Rang Hall and Cutting Memorial. Crime, especially against women, is one of the deciding factors in this election. The arrest of Samajwadi Party minister Prajapati is a clay pigeon for her. She attributed credit for his arrest and claimed “The Samajwadi Party government in UP came under pressure to initiate moves for the arrest of Prajapati after BJP exposed it on poor law and order situation in the state”.
All segments in Varanasi are meticulously addressed. Arun Jaitley, in a crispy white kurta, is here to meet traders at Vinayak Plaza. Other parties are not far behind. Rahul and Akhilesh are expected on March 4 for a 11-km roadshow. Mayawati alone is keeping the suspense alive. Other heavy hitters are expected; sous chefs before the maestro lands in his domain for the last lap of the combustible campaign.
At Pappu’s tea shop and at such adis, political polarisation is sharper than the lemon brew served in short glasses. “Just because there was Modi magic two years ago, it doesn’t mean there is one now,” 'says a skeptic. “History repeats in cycles.”
“The rest are all thieves, only Modiji has a clean image. He’s even tightened the screws on his ministers,” says an ardent fan.
Even the Ramjas College fracas is on the agenda.
But foes and fans alike criticise the ticket distribution formula.
“How do I vote for the same man in 2017 whom I voted against in 2012?” asks a man in a red shirt from a nearby village. “I just pressed NOTA.”
However, the emerging picture is politically cleaved: the Varanasi triptych of BJP, BSP and SP-Cong has just one high priest—Narendra Modi; in Uttar Pradesh, its him versus everyone else, including his own party. The 2014 tsunami is over, but the wave seems to be still lapping against the timeworn steps of the ghats. The denizens of Benares say they’re not voting for the BJP, but for Modi.
In UP, caste continues to hold the key, consolidating positions and communities. Niawada, just outside the holy city, is a Dalit village of around 1,500 residents. Suresh, who works in the city, says he and 150 of his relatives will vote as a group for Modi. The reason is demonetisation and the caste equality it has brought forth. Schadenfreude is the sub-theme of the pastoral narrative.
In the city, they still rue the pains of demonetisation. An old gentleman shows two Rs 500 notes. One with a rupee sign and the other without. “After all that pain, you can’t trust the currency,” he grumbles. But on judgment day later in the week, he will still plump for his MP. “There is nobody else,” he says.
However elsewhere, Dalits and Muslims seem to be consolidating their vote power. Dr Amarnath Paswan, director of The Centre for Study of Social Exclusion, Benaras Hindu University (BHU), says Dalits will vote for Mayawati. They are angry with Akhilesh for having scrapped the promotion quota in government jobs. The BJP and the SP alliance chose candidates too late; closer to the polling date, unlike Mayawati, who had selected the contestants nearly two years ago, and set them to work. Meanwhile, the groundwork started by Amit Shah and the RSS in 2014 has shaped the saffron strategy.
Dr Paswan thinks Muslims too will vote for the BSP. His organisation had conducted an exit poll-based survey among Dalits in four areas at each end of UP, where representation of all the 66 Harijan castes of the state were more or less equal. His finding is that Muslims, fearing that SP will not protect them, are citing Mayawati’s law and order record as their reason for support. “Even the upper caste Muslims are swinging the BSP way,” says Dr Paswan. There are areas in the interior like Karo and Manra where Brahmin girls are reportedly married off to upper caste Muslims as part of outrider caste traditions. Polarisation has clustered communities. After the Babri Masjid demolition, the Ashrafiya Muslims and lower caste Muslims in Bihar bonded to vote as on bloc. Academics at BHU feel even in mafia-dominated Azamgarh, Muslims will abandon SP to vote for BSP.
As the conclusion of India’s most crucial Assembly elections nears, the karma and dharma of each will segue to create a new tabula rasa. For Akhilesh and Rahul, victory will mean a new lease of life. For Mayawati, it will be rebirth, as the resurgent madonna of Dalit resurgence with an Islamic twist. For Modi, it will mean a personal stamp of approval given by India’s most politically powerful state to carry his national and political agenda forward, unchallenged.