Less than 6 months from the 2019 General Elections, there is palpable anger and discontentment in the temple town of Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and the heart of Hindi heartland that largely determines who rules India from Delhi. NISAR SIDDIQUI reports from the battleground Uttar Pradesh
Nisar Z Siddiqui | Caravan Daily
VARANASI, UTTAR PRADESH — When this correspondent had visited Varanasi during the 2014 polls, almost everyone in the city was chanting the name of Narendra Modi, the then BJP candidate for the parliamentary seat of the temple town. His main challenger the Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal was literally vying for a distant second position. The overwhelming buzz among the voters was that “God has etched the name of Narendra Modi on every heart”. Five years on, the scenario seems to have changed dramatically. With the 2019 General Elections less than 6 months away, Modi is not a popular name in the city of ghats.
Varanasi, also known as Benares, is unusually quiet. You don’t hear people shouting slogans or staging political rallies. This week, Prime Minister Modi toured the neighbouring Ghazipur and along the way visited his constituency. However, he hasn’t paid a visit to the city for quite some time. As this correspondent toured the city of streets (another popular name of Varanasi), he found most of the streets dug up. However, it does not mean the city is on the way to becoming another Kyoto as had been promised by the PM in 2014.
In fact, most development projects remain either incomplete or have been left as they were inherited. In the midst of these half-filled promises, it’s business as usual for the residents of Varanasi or the Banarasis.
On the question of development in the city, Sanjay Mishra, a student of Banaras Hindu University, says that the beauty of Varanasi is its streets, temples and ghats. “While the ghats have been upgraded with careful attention and attract tourists, temples are slowly decaying, with some of them even being wiped out completely. The roads have been dug up and have been left in that state.
When you drive, you have no idea if it is the roads with pits or pits with the road. The Centre and UP government have started the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Corridor and as per this project, the Ganga Pathway has to be constructed from the Vishwananth temple to Lalita Ghat. This project has not only defaced roads in Varanasi, it has generated a lot of anger in the locals who have suffered because of the project,” said Mishra.
The Ganga Pathway is one of the most ambitious and hyped projects unveiled by the Modi-Yogi combine. The rationale behind this project is that it will broaden roads and devotees will reach the temple on the bank of the Ganga without trouble. However, the project has met with massive protest by the people as a number of small temples and houses on the way have been razed to make space for the wide road.
To register the protest of priests against this project Swami Avimukteshwarnand, a representative of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopananad Saraswati, has released a video message for the government and common residents. The message notes that while the government claims to preserve the heritage of the city it is actually destroying the temples that form the core of ancient Hindu heritage. He calls upon residents to register their protest and take the BJP governments to task.
It is a bewildering situation for the ruling BJP as all these small temples had been at the forefront of canvassing for Modi in 2014 and are the core Hindutva constituency of the party.
After a walk in alleys of the city, this correspondent reached the Dashmamegh Ghat. It was the second day of the New Year and people from Varanasi and the neighbouring districts had descended on the ghats. It was a huge assembly of people from Assi Ghat to Rajghat. People had gathered to enjoy the boat ride. However, boatmen went on strike protesting against the introduction of government cruise rides in the river.
A boatman on the Ashwamegh Ghat, Ashok Sahni, told this correspondent that earlier there had been only one cruise that used to sail from Rajghat to Assi Ghat. However, now a number of cruises are being launched and they are feared to hit the business of local boatmen drastically. Another boatman Rajendra Nishad said that local boats charge Rs 50-100 for a ride from Manikarnika to Harishchandra Ghat. “But the government cruise charges merely Rs 20 for this ride. The government wants to compete with us with modern machines. If our employment is threatened, we also have the option of using one machine – EVM – in the next election,” he said.
The majority of boatmen on the Varanasi bank are Nishads or mallahs. They belong to the Other Backward Caste section and have supported the BJP both in 2014 and 2017 elections. But in recent months, the BJP is said to have earned their anger and the group is likely to move towards the SP-BSP alliance as was evident in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha by-polls last year.Farmers of the Varanasi district, like farmers of the whole country, too are full of complaints against the Modi and Yogi governments.
These days, farmers are gearing up to sow wheat. Some of them who spoke to this correspondent without giving their names said that during the previous SP government, the canal tax was abolished but the Yogi government has reintroduced it. “Besides, no new crop selling centres have been established. To get a licence for new tube wells has become more cumbersome. The availability of subsidised fertilizers too has not been improved,” said another farmer.
To add to their woes, the Yogi government has abolished the accidental insurance cover for farmers. “The previous Akhilesh Yadav government had increased the insurance amount from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh but this BJP government has set it aside completely. This insurance was a guarantee of support to farmers’ families against any accident, which may happen to them during farming. Its abolition has caused deep resentment among farmers,” said a farmer.
Sharad Gupta, a senior Hindi journalist who keeps a keen eye on the UP politics, says that he is witnessing a rapid decline in the popularity of Modi in the electorate for quite some time.
“See, even before the Assembly polls in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, I had seen the coming fall of Modi and the BJP. And even before 2019, I see a sharp fall in the popularity of PM Modi, even in Varanasi. And this is all because of the faulty policies they have introduced. For example, see the loan waiver issue. Before the recent Congress governments, the Yogi government too had waived farm loans. But this waiver covers only landed farmers. Landless farmers are not covered under this scheme. In India, around 60% of farmers are landless. How will they benefit from this scheme?” said Gupta, adding that the resentment among farmers is acute and palpable.
In Varanasi, it is believed that the mood of upper castes (Brahmins and Thakurs) is judged as a barometer to read the possible wave ahead of elections as they are believed to vote for those who are set to return to power. Some of the Brahmins, who voted for Narendra Modi in 2014, told this correspondent that the Brahmins feel cheated by PM’s policies.
Manish Mishra, a social activist and BJP sympathiser, believes that Modi is committed to development but he has veered from his original Hindutva agenda and thus distanced himself from people.
“See, even on the Ram temple issue, Modi has not promised the ordinance route and has announced to wait for the Supreme Court
Nisar Siddiqui is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. The views are personal.