This Maha Shivratri witnessed an unexpected crowd in Varanasi on Tuesday. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the ambitious Kashi Vishwanath Corridor last December, the shrine saw a record 5.5 lakh pilgrims this year, as compared to 2.5 lakh pilgrims last year.
The development of the shrine is the biggest achievement of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to Vishwanath Pandey, an author and political observer. “People here don’t like most of the sitting BJP MLAs due to their poor performance. If the BJP retains all the assembly seats in Varanasi this election, the credit goes to PM Narendra Modi,” said Pandey, a resident of Tulsidas colony. He notes that religious tourism is the mainstay of the local economy, which otherwise was in shambles due to decline of the traditional handloom and handicraft industry.
Even though Varanasi was adjudged “The Best Ganga Town” in Swachh Survekshan 2021, residents feel more efforts are required to ensure cleanliness. While the Smart City plan also recognises traffic congestion and encroachment menace as major problems, Arvind Tiwari, 42, a resident of Assi Ghat, told Outlook, “No one would have dared to clean Kashi the way PM Modi has been doing it. It was one of the dirtiest cities in the world until recently. Now the picture is changing.”
While Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been stationed in Varanasi, PM Modi is also going to stay in his Lok Sabha constituency for three days — from March 3 to March 5.
In the seventh phase of elections, 54 assembly constituencies, including eight in Varanasi, will vote on March 7. The BJP has retained its sitting MLAs including Neelkanth Tiwari (Varanasi South), Ravindra Jaiswal (Varanasi North), Saurabh Srivastava (Varanasi Cantt), Avdhesh Singh (Pindra) and Anil Rajbhar (Shivpur).
But there are also some doubts. “There is an alliance of Dalits, Muslims, Yadavs. A section of Brahmins is also not happy with the Yogi Adityanath government,” said Ashok Kumar Kaul, Professor Emeritus Sociology at Banaras Hindu University.
Local resident Gaurav Tiwari says, “The Samajwadi Party (SP) is giving a tough fight to the BJP, especially in Varanasi South, where Kashi Vishwanath Corridor is located. If the BJP loses this seat, it is going to be a major setback for the party.”
The battle for ration
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reached Varanasi on March 2 afternoon to campaign for the SP and attended Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also arrived last evening. She is staying at Kabir Chaura Math for the next three days.
Local newspapers carry advertisements about the free ration being provided by the BJP, indicating the focus of the party. The party has promised free land and houses to the homeless poor. Other promises include enhancement of monthly pension to the senior citizens, disabled, widows and destitute women to Rs 1500, credit cards for labourers and women with an upper limit of one lakh rupees, the opening of “Maa Annapurna Canteens” that would offer food to the poor at an affordable price, two cooking gas cylinders for the poor on Holi and Diwali, free coaching classes for the students preparing for the competitive exams, free education for children of construction labourers up to the college level and financial assistance for students from Scheduled Castes.
In contrast, the promises by the Congress and the SP are barely visible in advertisements. Vishwanath Pandey describes it “a one-sided media blitz”. “The BJP’s advertisements have been dominating the papers for over six months. Other parties don’t have a level playing field as far as media coverage and advertisements are concerned. ”
The free ration --- salt, edible oil, rice etc. --- the Yogi Adityanath government is providing has become a major electoral issue. Since the salt packets that are provided as part of the scheme carry photographs of Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi, its impact on voters is anybody’s guess. Last month, a Congress candidate from Pindara, Ajay Rai, was booked for sedition when he allegedly made some remarks against Yogi and Modi over the salt being provided by the government.
On January 24, the Supreme Court issued notice to the Central government and the Election Commission of India on the continued “tamasha” of political parties promising “irrational freebies” ahead of elections.
However, the politics of salt is not new to the state. The SP had also launched "Samajwadi Salt" for the poor in November 2016 when it was in power. This election, Akhilesh Yadav is promising one kg ghee along with free ration for five years, claiming that the BJP government would discontinue its ration scheme after the polls.
Clearly, the politics of free ration is here to stay.