Finding the Abu Hanifa mosque in the labyrinthine lanes of Varanasi’s Muslim ghetto is a challenge. But that’s where Abdul Batin Nomani—Mufti-e-Banaras—the most important religious leader of Muslims in the city meets people.
Sitting in a tiny room in the basement of the mosque, he doesn’t exactly sound enthusiastic about the Lok Sabha election in the city on 19 May as they have little to choose from. Contesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi is Shalini Yadav, the candidate of the gathbandhan (alliance) of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Ajay Rai of the Congress, who trailed Modi and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014. Nomani doesn’t say it, but it is unlikely that many of the 350,000 voters belonging to the community will choose the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Kaam ke naam par zero mamla hai (as far as work goes, it’s been a zero)," he says of the last five years under Modi. “They keep harping on the one sign of development in Banaras, the airport road, but that project was started by the previous government. There’s no development. Only hatred has been spread. You know about the incidents in the country."
The Muslim community in the city is also apprehensive about the Kashi-Vishwanath Corridor project to redevelop the Kashi Vishwanath temple area, as it also houses an ancient mosque. Although a petition on the perceived danger to the mosque was dismissed by the Supreme Court, Nomani is worried about cracks developing in the mosque because of widespread demolition in the area. “They are also digging on land owned by the Waqf board," he says, quickly adding that they are not against the project.
Being undertaken at a cost of ₹600 crore, the project is clearing an estimated 4.6 hectares around the city’s most important temple to create dedicated pathways to ease congestion and improve facilities for pilgrims.
The project has also antagonized a section of Modi’s core constituency, the Brahmins. Rajendra Tiwari, the former mahant of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, for one, is upset. “This corridor has been an attack on our cultural heritage just so that some people could bring their cars right up to the temple," he says.
Tiwari’s long-drawn campaign against the corridor, however, fizzled out when the courts did not entertain his public interest litigation. “This project is killing the identity of Kashi," he says, adding that not all of the 300,000 Brahmin votes in Varanasi will go to Modi this time.
Tiwari is not the only priest vocal about his displeasure with Modi. The mahant of Sankat Mochan temple, Vishambhar Nath Mishra, says there have only been cosmetic changes in the city in the last five years. “Just lighting up the ghats is not an indication of development," he argues. A professor of electronics at IIT BHU, Mishra is articulate, vocal, and unafraid. “Modi is an iconic figure. But ask him about development and his answers are like the black box." Modi had committed to clean the Ganga but the river isn’t any better. Even the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor redevelopment should have been better planned. “Here people occupy the old buildings. They wanted to transform Kashi into Kyoto. But Kyoto preserved its old structures," he argues.
As a professor, he is also grappling with budget cuts for the university under this government. “Even the campus has been politicized. Now BJP workers are using the guest houses in BHU," he claims.
Another senior professor of BHU, who did not want to be named, agrees: “There’s been saffronization of the campus. In the last two years, there’s been campus violence and the atmosphere has been vitiated."
He says that as the opposition at the centre has been very weak, it has been an authoritarian regime. “Forget about criticism, even if we evaluate the government we are tagged as anti-national," he says. In the last five years’ context, democracy has been a big casualty. The government has failed on social, political and economic parameters, too, he adds. Modi is set to be re-elected from Varanasi, though things are not as smooth as they were in 2014. “If he’s popular, his vote share should go up. But that remains to be seen," he adds.
An RTI activist in the city, Awadhesh Dixit says that such criticism coming from Banaras residents is revealing. In Varanasi, there is no real opposition to Modi. “If Congress had fielded Priyanka Gandhi from here, it would have been a different story," he says, echoing a commonly held view in the city.
Abhinav Mishra, a law student who comes from a family of BJP supporters, agrees: “With Priyanka in the fray, it would have been a good fight." But he’s happy with Modi as his MP and PM. “Maybe people had very high expectations, but Banaras has improved. We get almost 24-hour power now. Roads are better. In the villages around us, Ujjawala Yojna has done well." Among the issues that still need resolution are jobs and state-level corruption, he says.
To be sure, the business community in Banaras will vote Modi back to power again. Among his diehard supporters is an old business family of Banaras with interests in carpet exports, auto dealership, real estate and finance. Its owner, Rama Raman Prasad, says that theirs was a family of Congress loyalists. “But the Congress never did what Modi has delivered in such a short time. GST has been a big reform even though it inconvenienced many. He has also improved India’s image abroad," he says.
In Banaras, the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor redevelopment plan is a master stroke, according to him. It will boost tourism and create jobs. But does he see him as a force that has polarized society along communal lines? “That’s not true. At least in Banaras there is complete unity. In fact, 40% of my staff is Muslim and there are no issues whatsoever."
Imran Hashmi, manager at an apparel store in JHV Mall in the city, says Banaras may have seen only cosmetics changes, but Modi has no opponent here. “He will win. And he should. After all he is the prime minister of the country."
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