The chant of “Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi” had many in Varanasi simmer in anger at the arrogance of those who equate Narendra Modi , the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Mahadev. Yet, it took the splashing of ink on Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal on 25 March for the anger to flow out, albeit in a subliminal manner, conveying the immeasurable possibilities of politics.
As the sun set over Benia Bagh, where Kejriwal was mercilessly punching holes into Modi’s Gujarat model of development, the muezzin’s call to prayer rent the air. Kejriwal paused in his speech. At the end of the azaan, a cry of “Har har Mahadev” arose, joined by thousands of voices, of which many belonged to Muslims. From the time of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, perhaps never before had a religious symbol or slogan been usurped from the BJP, that too for uniting rather than dividing people.
No doubt, those few seconds symbolized Varanasi’s syncretic culture. But what ought not to be forgotten is that Varanasi lives in binaries. For instance, the heaps of garbage all around mock its pervasive religiosity and holiness. It shouldn’t therefore surprise that Modi’s decision to contest from Varanasi has triggered a countervailing force.
Modi and Kejriwal exemplify two contrasting ideas, even personalities. Modi has assiduously cultivated a persona of decisive leader, emphasizes growth, flaunts his proximity to big business, and dislikes engaging in debates. He struts around throwing innuendoes against his rivals, his 56-inch chest puffed up. Though his 2014 campaign focuses on development, to his obsessive followers he quintessentially remains the Hindu Hriday Samraat.
By contrast, Kejriwal is puny, in every way the man next door, who refuses to make the sartorial switch from the pant-shirt ensemble to kurta-pajama. This places him outside the entrenched political class, and imparts credibility to his stinging attacks against politicians, their corrupt ways, and their symbiotic relationship with big business. He rails against the development model he feels is loaded against ordinary folk, particularly farmers.
This battle of perceptions in Varanasi described as one between the larger-than-life personality of Modi and the perceived moral authority of Kejriwal.
To comprehend the complexity of the electoral battle in Varanasi, you can’t assign the same salience to caste and religion as had been done till recently. You can’t add the number of Brahmin voters to those of Vaishya caste and credit it to the BJP’s electoral account. You can’t assume that the alliance forged between the BJP and Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal will enable Modi to reap a rich harvest of Kurmi votes. I met a good many Kurmis who are inclined to the AAP, applauding it for highlighting the appropriation of agricultural land to benefit industrialists. There are Dalits whose loyalty to Mayawati, head of the Bahujan Samaj Party, wears thin, and are split in their admiration for Modi and Kejriwal.
Indeed, both have an appeal cutting across the caste divide. For Modi, it is a combination of Hindutva, which Sangh activists articulate at the grassroots, and the promise of ushering in development a la Gujarat. Yet this model has lost its sheen courtesy Kejriwal, who has a greater number of admirers among the lower classes, irrespective of their caste, than he has in the middle class, a slice of which supports him as well. They are pulled to him because of his crusade against corruption, cited as the principal reason for Varanasi’s moribund infrastructure. The reverse is true for Modi—his popularity is infinitely greater in the middle and upper crusts of society than it is in the lower classes.
This isn’t to imply that caste identities have melted away. For instance, the young and educated among the Vaishya caste, considered traditional voters of the BJP, take pride in Kejriwal, a community member, emerging as a national icon. Similarly, Modi’s Other Backward Class (OBC) identity holds out a certain charm for members of this caste grouping.
It is impossible to tell whether the cracks in the mould of identity politics have come about because of two national personalities contesting from Varanasi. Yet, judging from the narratives of people, it does seem the bonds of caste have loosened. For one, migration to metros has had its impact on popular consciousness, prompting people to think beyond the politics of identity. Two, reservation is now considered an irreversible aspect of social reality, blunting its sharp edge that once cleaved society. The third factor is the inability of subaltern caste leaders to meld together the heterogeneous OBCs or Dalits through policies to improve their economic conditions. This is precisely why several non-Jatav Dalit groups feel increasingly alienated from Mayawati, as do non-Yadav backward castes from Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party.
The pull of identity politics on Muslims too has weakened considerably. Few in the community want Mukhtar Ansari to contest from Varanasi, wary that his very presence would communally polarize the city, as it did in the 2009 election, and fracture Muslim votes. In fact, the city’s influential Muslims have communicated their sentiments to him, hoping he would heed to their counsel.
As such, Kejriwal enjoys tremendous goodwill among Muslims for taking the fight into Modi’s Gujarat. But this emerging support of Muslims for Kejriwal isn’t grounded in the politics of identity. In fact, at the Benia Bagh rally, the AAP leader didn’t even refer to the 2002 Gujarat riots, yet the popular refrain among Muslim participants was that Kejriwal speaks of social justice, which is what the community wants.
Incredible as it may sound, Modi hasn’t as yet won Varanasi, though he enjoys the advantages accruing from a relentless high-decibel campaign and inexhaustible resources. In case Kejriwal camps in Varanasi, as he is likely to for a month, Modi will have a tough battle on hand. Perhaps the BJP senses the emerging challenge as it chose to respond to Kejriwal’s criticism of the Gujarat model for the first time after the Varanasi rally.
Ajaz Ashraf is a freelance journalist.