Across several groups of people who had attended Narendra Modi’s roadshow in Varanasi on Friday, March 4, or heard him on TVs and radios, the discussion centred around the adjective widely attributed to the prime minister by local BJP candidates: ‘saviour’. Interestingly, a common thread was emerging from all these discussions in this VIP constituency. Most people said they felt had it been 2017, “the boats of the BJP candidates would have crossed the Ganga without any trouble. But in 2022, the journey for the eight MLA candidates from PM Modi’s parliamentary constituency could well be a stormy one”.
In December 2021, the PM had inaugurated the Rs 700 crore Kashi Vishwanath Corridor in the heart of Varanasi. But in Varanasi South, where the shrine of Baba Vishwanath is located, Samajwadi Party candidate Kishan Dikshit is giving a tough fight to the incumbent BJP MLA, Neelkanth Tiwari, who is a junior minister in the Yogi Adityanath government. The constituency has been a strong citadel for BJP, from where Shyamdev Rai Choudhary represented the party between 1989 and 2017.
A greenhorn in electoral politics, Dikshit is a priest of the famous Mrityunjay Mahadev Temple. He is said to be a non-controversial and well-educated person. A former student leader, Dikshit led the agitation against the demolition of houses within 200m of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. He also protested the setting up of bio-toilets or floating toilets on the Ganga, and led a movement for saving “heritage temples”. The young leader is said to have personal connections with thousands of his temple devotees.
Samajwadi spokesperson Manoj Rai tells Outlook, “Since BJP has been playing the religion card everywhere, we decided to field the district president of our party’s youth wing from Varanasi South. Kishan Dikshit comes from a family of well-respected mahants of one of the oldest and most prominent temples in Varanasi. Every Hindu has faith in Mrityunjay Mahadev. It will certainly benefit our candidate politically.” He says he isn’t aware if Dikshit is the only priestly candidate of the party in the 2022 election.
“No doubt he enjoys the support of local residents who feel the development of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor has been executed in a wrong way,” says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, who is head of the department of Electronics Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University. “While he has his own support base, there’s a possibility that SP’s voter base, as well as candidates of the Congress, BSP and AAP, could deepen the dent in the BJP candidate’s vote share, strengthening Dikshit’s position.”
While the constituency has a considerable number of Brahmin, Vaishya and Muslim voters, Dikshit is contesting the election on issues such as the development of the Vishwanath shrine in sync with the heritage infrastructure of the city, free entrance passes for pilgrims, opening of lanes that lead to Ganga ghats, arrangement of bike ambulances for residents living in labyrinthine lanes, reopening of Sanskrit schools that have been closed, vehicle parking concessions for local traders, and rehabilitation of small traders who got displaced at the time of the corridor redevelopment.
Before embarking on his electoral campaign for the parliamentary seat in 2014, Modi had visited the temple and called on Mishra, who is also chief Mahant of the famous Sankat Mochan temple, on December 20, 2013.
Mishra says Brahmins are unhappy over the way non-Banarasi religious scholars are being imposed on Banaras. “They come here like Siberian migratory birds and fly away. They just endorse government actions aimed at reshaping the city as ‘a Smart City’, and know nothing about its heritage,” Mishra says, questioning the silence over the efficacy of the Namami Gange project.
Incidentally, in the wake of the PM’s roadshow, several awnings had been erected on both sides of Asi Nadi, which becomes the Asi Nullah as it nears Assi Ghat, where it empties the city’s sewage into the Ganga. The condition of Varuna, another tributary of Ganga on the opposite bank, is no different. The name Varanasi has been derived from the confluence of both the names of the tributaries, Varuna and Asi, according to Mishra.
Observers viewed the March 3 visit of West Bengal CM and TMC chairperson Mamata Banerjee to Varanasi as a “journey of revenge”. Pertinently, Yogi Adityanath had campaigned against her in the 2021 Bengal assembly elections.
But Amitabh Bhattacharya, a veteran, Varanasi-based journalist, termed Banerjee’s visit as symbolic. “It will have little impact on electoral politics. The maximum concentration of Bengalis is in the Varanasi Cantt constituency—which is home to about 10,000 Bengal-origin families. Interestingly, the mother of BJP’s Varanasi Cantt contestant, Saurabh Srivastava, is a Bengali. She is a Bengali Ghoshal Brahmin.”
“Mamata made a political statement that Akhilesh Yadav is not alone in this election,” the septuagenarian scribe adds. “She is struggling to come out of provincial limits. Mamata aspires to make a mark in national politics and needs the support of regional leaders.”
In the Varanasi Cantt constituency, where PM Modi made a stopover at Pappu tea shop for over half an hour on March 4 during his roadshow, the Congress’ Rajesh Mishra is giving tough competition to the incumbent BJP MLA, Saurabh Srivastava.
The roadshow started from Maldahiya, where PM Modi garlanded the statue of late Congress leader and the first Union home minister, Sardar Patel. It culminated at BHU, where he paid tributes to Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a four-time president of the Indian National Congress.
“If the party candidates and the state party’s unit were so self-assured, there wouldn’t have been the entire ‘Team Modi’ in Varanasi for this election,” says Ratnakar Tripathi, a noted social activist and local, claiming, “the BJP is facing a tough time in all eight assembly seats.”
Currently, scores of top BJP leaders, including Union home minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda, Union minister and UP BJP in-charge Dharmendra Pradhan, Union minister Anurag Thakur, besides CM Yogi Adityanath, are stationed in the temple city. Varanasi will vote in the seventh and final round of the state assembly polls on March 7.
According to local residents, Union home minister Amit Shah has been holding group meetings with members of the Gujarati community in several pockets of Varanasi. A sizeable part of the community is into the trade of Banarasi silk saris.
In the run-up to the elections, several BJP workers from Gujarat have also been campaigning for the party in Banaras. Even at the ghats, they can be seen greeting pilgrims with the chants of “Jai Sri Ram”, while waving BJP flags and cut-outs of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.
Even though former CM and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav also held a big roadshow in the city on March 4, its advertisements and coverage was largely missing from the mainstream media.
“The eight assembly seats are important for the BJP as these seats belong to the Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency. The loss of even a single seat here could have long-term political consequences for the party,” Tripathi says, explaining that “the public euphoria in yesterday’s roadshow was nothing compared to what it was in 2014 and 2017”.
Describing the road show as “stage-managed”, Tripathi concluded, “Even though the central and state governments claim to have spent thousands of crores on Varanasi, the issues of common masses remain unaddressed. And this is the biggest source of resentment against the incumbent state government.”