April 03, 2020
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Into The Very Tempest

Trying to determine whether it’s a Modi aandhi or just plain loo

Into The Very Tempest
Bishwadeep Moitra
Into The Very Tempest

KAVAL—or the five cities of Kanpur, Agra, Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh—has been a crucial centre of business, administration and politics ever since the British governed the region then called the United Provinces. The centre of gravity of commerce in the state has shifted to Noida and Ghaziabad in the last three decades, but the six constituencies that make up KAVAL remain interesting points d’entree to read the straws in the wind.

How UP votes will, like always, determine whether NDA succeeds in its Mission 272. The vote on the ‘Modi wave’ is still divided: the believers have already put the fireworks out to dry for a certain victory celebration on May 16; the non-believer calls the so-called wave a ‘loo’—the hot wind that blows in the plains around this time of the year.

The showcase arena of KAVAL—Varanasi—will go to polls the last, on May 12, a fitting theatre for the grand finale. The diminutive Arvind Kejriwal is fighting a spirited battle here. In a public meeting at Ramnagar Chowk, across the Ganga, he talks about the Ambanis and the Adanis, pulls out a sheaf of papers on the Lokpal Bill, takes questions on corruption...a crowd of about a thousand cheers him on. There’s a small commotion, a few cops jump on a man, AK urges them to let him go...the crowd cheers even more.

AAP is having a rough time in Varanasi. Its volunteers get thrashed—regularly and mercilessly—by workers of other parties during their campaign. The party did not have much time to organise itself to fight elections in the land of bahubalis or musclemen. In the two constituencies of Allahabad alone—Phoolpur and Allahabad City—the array of guns candidates and their spouses, cutting across party lines, have declared on their nomination forms would put Billy the Kid and his Wild West mates to shame. The Congress candidate from Varanasi, Ajai Rai, is said to be a strong candidate against Modi, primarily because of his muscle power.

AAP is also finding it tough to convincingly explain away its Delhi debacle. Half of AK’s time is spent telling his audience why he resigned as the chief minister. The issues he raises—swaraj and Lokpal, gas pricing and crony capitalism—are perhaps too esoteric for the locals to connect with. The number of votes AK eventually polls will be a pointer to how many people in Varanasi—between the mullahs and the pandas and everyone else who falls in between—give a damn about the ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’.

The city and its people are reeling under the crumbling infrastructure and the goonda raj of the SP government. Murli Manohar Joshi, the sitting MP known locally as the ‘adrishya saansad’ (invisible MP), won here by a small margin in 2009, but would have likely struggled this time. Sensing the mood, the Modi camp in Varanasi is already talking of Modi retaining Vara­nasi over Vadodara after the polls.

Being a local is a factor in Varanasi, which the Congress has been quick to exploit in its slogan: ‘Na paanwala, na chaiwala, Benares is for the Benares­wala’. Says Kamrul Hassan, a manager with the Bombay Mercantile Bank, “The Muslims are likely to vote for the Cong­ress because they want someone who is from here and is available to address the long-neglected problems of the city.” The Muslim vote here, like in the rest of the state, is expected to be crucial in the bid to stop Modi, but only if the Muslim vote can unite itself in such an effort. According to Shiv Kumar Singh, a Lohiaite and a former aide of George Fernandes, the so-called block voting by Muslims is actually a device used by Hindutva forces to create paranoia among Hindus so that they unite behind Modi. “Tell me, when did the Muslims ever vote for the BJP?” asks Singh.

Zain is the son of a gaddidar or contractor and will be driven by the anti-Modi vote. (Photograph by Bishwadeep Moitra)

The Ansaris are the largest group of Muslims in Varanasi. The Benarasi silk-weaving industry, as old as the city itself, runs entirely on their steam, divided as it is between the bunkars—the actual weavers—and the gaddidars—the contractors. They are led by the community’s supreme leader Haji Mukhtar, also called the Sardar of Baawani or 52 neighbourhoods. Come Murri, the annual day of the weavers, and he will indicate the party the community should vote for.

Both Shakeel Ahmed and Zain Rehman are first-time voters and represent the two ends of the weaving industry. Says Shakeel, sweating it out at a loom in Bajardiha, a weaver’s basti, “My father says the weavers suffered a lot due to the Vajpayee government’s export policy. Weavers became jobless and had to pull rickshaws to survive. We are much better-off under Congress rule, I will vote for them.”

A 20-minute drive away, Zain, a first-generation gaddidar to have got a public school education, parties hard with friends in the afternoon at the Agni Bar. “My friends,” he says, “like me, wouldn’t have voted. But since it is Modi, we’ll go out and vote against him.”

The BJP in Varanasi, however, like in Phoolpur in Allahabad, will gain from its electoral alliance with Apna Dal, an influential regional party in UP comprising OBC Patels who have traditionally voted the Samajwadi Party. This time, though, the anger against SP rule in the state will mostly work to BJP’s advantage in KAVAL constituencies.

SP, therefore, faces the twin challenge of appeasing the Muslim as well as the Yadav vote. As Sanjay Khanduja, former chairman of the Chartered Acc­ountants’ Association of Allahabad, puts it, “Every time the SP has come to power in UP, it has unleashed on the business community all the criminal elements which go underground during Mayawati’s rule. Most police stations now are headed by Yadav police officers, who are in collusion with the same criminals who extort the business community. The situation is so bad that a businessman is better off not reporting a theft to the police station.” The vote for Modi, he says, is essentially a vote against the lawlessness in the SP regime.

Anti-Modi Air: Students discuss Modi’s interview at the canteen of Lucknow’s Integral University, where 70% students are Muslim. (Photograph by Bishwadeep Moitra)

In state capital Lucknow, the Modi hawa seems to blow fierce among the sizeable middle-class population of this constituency of 20 lakh voters. Says Saroja Devi Gupta, 71, a resident of upscale Indira Nagar, “The Modi wave in Lucknow is like the big anti-Indira wave of 1977.” But Rajnath Singh, BJP president and the party’s candidate from Lucknow, should be wary of the Brahmin vote getting split. Nearly half of the seven lakh savarna votes in Lucknow are Brahmins. And all three serious challengers to the BJP here—SP, BSP and Congress—have fielded Brahmin candidates.

Rajnath’s meeting a Shia cleric and donning a skullcap did win favour with Shia Muslims. Barkat Hassan Askari, a Shia Muslim trader in the old town Chowk of Luck­now, perhaps spoke for his entire com­munity when he said: “Rajnath Singh is like Vaj­payeeji, we will vote for him.” But Shia Muslims form only 2-3 per cent of the Muslim population that has anyway voted for the BJP in the past.

The majority Muslim sentiment is anything but sympathetic to BJP. The older generation is unforgiving of the Babri Masjid demolition, the younger lot has the Gujarat riots seared in their memory. At Integral University, a sprawling private college on the outskirts of Lucknow, 70 per cent of the students are from middle- and upper middle-class Muslim families. A group of third-year IT students is discussing the Modi interview that was on air the previous evening at the college canteen during recess. No one seems taken in by the mellow Modi version. He will remain the man responsible for 2002. 

Yet, the sizeable Muslim vote which is capable of defeating Rajnath in Lucknow will be unable to unite to stop him, according to Anis Ashfaq Abidi, professor of Urdu at the Lucknow University. “Tactical voting in Lucknow is not succeeding,” he says. This is because the Muslim vote is getting divided between Congress and SP.

The Congress candidate in Lucknow, Rita Bahuguna, is expected to give the BJP a decent fight, never mind if the Congress HQ in a sprawling colo­nial-style bungalow doesn’t look particula­rly energised even during election season. A few weatherbeaten state Congress officials believe “there is a lot going for the Congress candidate”. Firstly, she won by a handsome margin in 2009 despite her candidature being announced just 15 days before filing of nomination. And ever since, she has stayed on in Lucknow and been visible to the electorate in the last five years. Secondly, as H.N. Bahuguna’s daughter, she has a Garhwal connection, which is expected to bring in the ‘Pahari’ vote.

Scared? Not Us: Ibrahim, 64, convenor of the Kanpur chapter of INTACH and his wife Wasia, 58, think that the Muslims should not fear persecution if Narendra Modi were to become prime minister even if Election 2014, in their opinion, is being fought on the most communal lines ever since they can remember. “The educated middle class,” they also feel, “is more communal than anytime before.” (Photograph by Bishwadeep Moitra)

SP, on the other hand, is relying on the ews Muslim community, which votebank it has nurtured since coming to power in 2011. It has done for them what Mayawati did for the Mahadalits, who have remained solidly behind BSP ever since. Says Nasih Hasan, a social activist working in the Muslim-domi­nated slum areas of Lucknow, “The SP ensured that everyone got a voter ID card, required to open a bank account. Even those in the slums who didn’t own a patta could open an account to receive the various monetary benefits the SP government devised for the weaker sections of Muslims.”

“All parties use Muslims. It’s time we voted for somebody who does something for the development of the country.”

A large section of the Muslims, however, holds SP responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots. According to a top police official, the polarisation in the state began soon after the SP coming into power. The unwritten rule earlier was that different communities would arrive at a consensus with the help of the local thana before building a new place of worship. With SP taking over the reins of the state, say the locals, the Muslims would occupy a piece of land and start building quietly through the nights. By the time the people of other communities noticed the activity and approached the thana for intervention, the daroga, on instructions from his political bosses, would look the other way. The police would intervene only when it sensed a riot would break out between the communities. By this time enough construction would have taken place to give the structure some shape and daily offerings of namaz commenced. “Suddenly mosques were popping up all over UP villages, making even the Dalits suspicious and uneasy,” says the officer.

Enter Amit Shah to fan and cash in on polarised sentiments in UP. The fallout in Muzaffarnagar was a direct result of SP overplaying its Muslim card and it backfiring. The party will most likely face a rout in KAVAL regions but will still net its traditional Yadav, Thakur and other OBC vote. As Sunil Umrao, who teaches journalism at Allahabad Univer­sity, puts it, “People here are concerned only about who can get their thana-kachehri work done.” And this is what SP is telling the people aggressively, that regardless of who takes charge at the Centre, in the state, they will remain in power for the next three years. The politically aware electorate of Allahabad constituencies knows whose side they have to be on when to best serve their own interests. “Here,” says Umrao, “in a family of four-five members, each might join a different party. But when it comes to voting, they will all vote along traditional caste lines.”

In Phoolpur too, the Muslims could tilt the balance against the BJP. Even the educated, urbane Muslim here thinks Modi will bring trouble for the community. Mohammed Arif, 34, and his wife Sheema Uzair, 26, run a high school for ews children in the Muslim-dominated area of Ghalib Road in Allahabad North. “If Modi becomes the prime minister of India, there are sure to be riots in our area,” they say.

‘Why Should I Be Dearful?’: Waseem, 42, is not worried about Modi coming to power. An affluent third-generation businessman, he is engaged in the traditional leather industry in Agra. He thinks Modi is divisive, that he is more vinash purush than vikas purush, but he has nothing to fear. “I run a legal, successful business, pay my taxes.” (Photograph by Bishwadeep Moitra)

The Muslims here will vote for the SP since it is best placed to defeat the BJP, but some Ansaris might vote for Congress candidate Mohammed Kaif. A discussion at the Coffee House in Allahabad, a watering hole for the city’s intellectuals, dismisses him outright, though. “He is no Azharuddin,” they say. “The Muslim vote he will take away will only harm the SP, and help the BJP win.”

The BJP might have an edge over SP and BSP owing to its alliance with Apna Dal in Phoolpur, but BSP candidate Keshari Devi Patel is most likely to wrest Allahabad City. The other constituency in KAVAL where a BSP candidate starts as a favourite is Agra, where Narain Singh is contesting. A reserved seat in KAVAL, Agra has traditionally voted for the BJP. The Vaish community, numbering 2.5 lakh of the constituency’s approximately 17 lakh voters, has been a solid voter base for the party. The other savarnas—Brahmins, Thakurs and Punjabi sardars—constitute around 5 lakh votes; they have changed their loyalty from time to time, but have never voted en bloc. It’s these segments that the BJP will need to work upon if it wants to win Agra.

However, the BSP’s 2.5 lakh loyal Jatav voters have not left Mayawati since 1991. But it’s the 2 lakh Muslim vote here that could make the difference between winning and losing for the BJP candidate. The antipathy among Muslims for Modi runs so deep here that one can’t tell whether the anti-Modi wave is greater than the Modi wave in the city. 

The Muslims in Agra are concentrated around Shaheednagar, a housing colony of lig, Janata and ews flats. Constructed by the Agra Development authority in the mid-’90s, it has no infrastructure to speak of. The drains are clogged and overflowing, mosquitoes swarm the area, the roads are an apology and power cuts frequent. There are no government schools or primary health care centres in sight. ‘Development man’ Modi should have been poster boy here; instead he invokes impotent rage. And this to people who speak of the Vajpayee era with nostalgia. “Election 2014 is all about defeating Modi,” I am told by a motley group of boys and men just after the evening namaz. And what if even the Muslim-Dalit combination is unable to defeat Modi, I venture to ask. There is a strained silence, before the older lot in the group laughs off the possibility.

Wary Of PM Modi Mohammed Arif and wife Sheema, who run a high school for EWS children in Allahabad. (Photograph by Bishwadeep Moitra)

In Kanpur, though, the poll arithmetic has been complicated by the three Muslim candidates in the fray—of the SP, BSP and AAP, though the real contest is between Congress and the BJP. The two-time sitting Congress MP—Sriprakash Jaiswal—is said to be fighting the perceived Modi wave this time but the contest really would go down to the wire. “Jaiswal knows how to win an election,” quips a BJP party worker, who monitors the party’s internet cell. He also belongs to the trader community, which helps given that Kanpur has over the years transformed from being an industrial ‘labour city’ (it voted independent labour leader S.M. Banerjee four times consecutively since 1971) to becoming a trader city, with many of its textile mills and leather tanneries now being shut. He won the last election by a small margin of 18,000 votes, but enjoys tremendous goodwill among people for being in Kanpur all weekends during his tenure. In fact, the joke went that Jaiswal attended more mundans in Kanpur than meetings of the ministry in Delhi. While the BJP workers do not deny Jaiswal’s pull, they cite the appalling conditions in the city as reason for the people to cast their vote for vikas purush Modi.    

The BJP candidate—the veteran M.M. Joshi—has not exactly endeared himself to the local party unit with his comment on the wave being the bjp’s and not Modi’s. Joshi is seen as an outsider in Kanpur, but his selection over other local aspirants has at least kept factionalism within the party in check. The party worker is working towards getting Modi elected; Joshi, he knows, will not be seen in Kanpur once the polls are over, whatever the outcome.

So it is that on a Joshi roadshow, the younger lot of BJP workers, high on the Modi elixir, shout ‘Har, Har Modi’ well within Joshi’s earshot and much to his obvious irritation. Modi does not find mention even once in Joshi’s speech but that does nothing to shake the enthused party worker’s firm belief in Modi’s certain victory. The internet cell keeps the probable BJP voter in the loop 24x7, through Facebook and WhatsApp.

The middle-class vote in Kanpur is crucial in deciding the winner, the Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit combine that works elsewhere in UP does not hold much cache here. The Muslims fear their 18 percent vote share in the 17 lakh-strong voting community may get divided, but most will throw in their lot with Jaiswal.

Or will they? Akram Ali, 29, a middle-class educated entrepreneur, so far a Congress voter, will be giving Modi a chance this time. And “there are many middle-class Muslim youth who share my views,” he says. “All parties have used Muslims as a votebank,” he goes on to say. “It’s time we choose someone who does something for the country and for Kanpur.” His widowed mother, Ameena Bi, and wife Zeenat, a 27-year-old PhD student in Sanskrit, do not share his views. While Ameena says she will vote for the winning party, the only thing Zeenat knows is that Modi is anathema to Muslims.

The BJP score in KAVAL right now reads 3-3. If the scoreline becomes 4-2, it would suggest it won on anti-incumbency and its thought-out poll alliance. But 5-1, and it will confirm that there was indeed a Modi wave in 2014.

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