The ancient city of Varanasi has become India’s latest political battleground, where India’s main opposition party, the Bhariya Janta Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, is challenged by the anti-corruption crusader and leader of India’s youngest political party, the Common Man Party, Arvind Kejriwal, in elections to the lower house of Indian parliament. Victory for either one of these leaders would make defeat for the other more shocking.
India is currently voting to elect 543 members to its 16th lower house of Parliament. Whichever political party or alliance wins the majority in the lower house will run the national government and choose the next prime minister. Modi’s party is favored to win, and he is hoping to get all seats from Varanasi and the state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi goes to the polls Monday in what is the last day of a five-week election period.
“Anything can happen on voting day,” said Nehru Lal, 67, a silk sari vendor from Varanasi.
In pre-colonial India, politics were primarily an affair between the ruling class of warriors and the Brahmin priests, and religion has always played a role in politics. Modi’s BJP woos both these social classes with its rhetoric.
Varanasi, also known to Indians as Kashi or Banaras, was the place where Gautama Buddha, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded, gave his first sermon. Later, the city became a symbol of Hindu resurgence. Varanasi has witnessed an extremely complex unfolding of historical events of religion and spirituality and connects with the soul of the country’s Hindus like no other city today.
On Saturday, photographers captured Varanasi in all its complexity—temples, marigold flowers, people taking holy baths in the Ganges River, barbers shaving people in the open near the waters, streets decked with colorful political flags, political campaigners with garlands around their necks, and crowds of supporters, some wearing Modi face masks, waving and displaying victory signs.
“The mood in Varanasi is very upbeat. The huge gathering shows the confidence people of India are giving to Modi,” Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP spokesperson said in a phone interview from New Delhi Thursday.
The BJP rode to popularity on a slogan of Hindu resurgence referring to Ram Rajya or the rule of Lord Ram, a popular Hindu god. It was on this wave of resurgence that the party’s senior leaders openly supported the demolition of Babri Masjid, a Muslim mosque at Ayodya in 1992, a tragedy that killed thousands. Ayodya is the ancient birthplace of Ram, and Hindus said a Muslim ruler had built the mosque after demolishing an existing Hindu temple.
The political controversy over Ayodya still continues, however the BJP has tried to reach out to Muslims, who in Varanasi don’t seem to be that impressed.
Its leaders, however, remain confident of their performance in the ancient city. “The ‘janta’ [whole public] of Banaras is with BJP. On May 12, along with Congress, all other political parties are going to be ousted,” said Bharat Dixit, a local BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh.
Common Man: The New Player
Until last year, it was just the BJP and the ruling National Congress Party spicing up Indian politics, along with various other regional players who survived in Indian politics on the basis of caste, language, and regional factionalism. It was only when Aam Admi, or the Common Man Party, was formed in November 2012 that Indian national politics got a third major national political party.
Aam Admi started challenging Congress and the BJP openly this election cycle, bringing activists and unknown commoners into politics. Arvind Kejriwal waited for Modi to declare Varanasi as his constituency before entering the race for Aam Admi.
According to a report by India Today, immediately before filing his nomination from Varanasi on April 23, Kejriwal addressed the people of Varanasi: “I will file my nomination from Kashi today. I have your blessings. This is a fight of the people of Kashi who want a corruption-free state and roads.”
Kejriwal has been drawing support from an increasing number of laborers and other common citizens.
“We have been continuously going to the villages, streets, and neighborhoods. People can see for the first time someone has come to fight against corruption,” said Nagendra Rai, the Varanasi coordinator for Aam Admi, in a phone interview. “We are winning!”
According to a report by New Delhi Television Thursday, Modi landed by helicopter on the outskirts of Varanasi and spent three hours driving through 2.5 miles of thick crowds around the city as part of an unofficial political rally. It came after the Election Commission of India prevented him from holding a large event in the heart of the city.
“It went very well!” said Dixit, referring to the rally. “There were people around to welcome him. He addressed people at a college ground in the outskirts of the city and then offered ‘arti’ [ritual with lamp lighting] to the Ganga.”
According to silk seller Lal, Modi has strong support from Hindu religious leaders and the business elite, but his message doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Around the nation, particularly in North India, campaign supporters have short-named Modi “NaMO” deliberately attempting to etch him into the psyche of India’s majority Hindus, who since the beginning of their religion have been chanting “namo namo” as a chant praising their god Lord Shiva.