Ideas Battling At Varanasi
For fortuitous or well-thought reasons, Narendra Modi chose Varanasi to contest for a Parliament seat in the 2014 elections. Reasons don’t matters. What matters is the symbolic that the site of the contest represents.
Varanasi is older than history, Mark twain said in his notes on travels through India. His travelogue is unsurpassed for description. Sir Vidya Shankar Naipul’s “The Wounded Civilization” written in the 1960’s comes next to Mark Twain’s. Rome is called the eternal city. The city lives outside time. So does Benaras.
It is the ghats on the banks of the Ganga that make Benaras unique. There are 365 ghats—as many as the numbers of days in a year. Each ghat has distinct function and the pious must perform these functions round the year. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is best known and most frequently visited by tourists, Indians and foreigners.
On these ghats is performed a ritual that signals the final departure of the dead from this earth. It is a moving ritual and the verses that go with it are deeply philosophical. The ashes of a dead flow in the waters of the Ganga. The dead is cleansed of his or her sins so as to be born again. The dead is reborn at these ghats. Varanasi is the site of an election contest that I think is going to define India. It’s the most significant election since the 1977 one, where the issue was who rules India and how: Indira Gandhi and her sons ruling autocratically or the people of India governing themselves by the Constitution.
In the 2014 elections, what is really at stake is whether Hindutva nationalism of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of 1989-90 is finally dead and whether in its place emerges a set of ideas that cast Hindutva in a modern world. This means a nationalism that encompasses the rich diversity of Hindu civilisation, the immense diversity of India and one that fully embraces modernity.
Narendra Modi has come to symbolise the news nationalism. His Gujarat is a good example of the economic growth, good governance and civic peace. Godhra happened thirteen years ago, in 2002, and since then the state has seen religious peace. Compare that Mulyam Singh UP or Congress-ruled Maharashtra.
There is another idea of India that one hears at the ghats. India, as the chief exponent of this idea says, must be a participatory democracy and it must be accountable to its people. Its spokesman is Arvind Kejriwal, a superb speaker, great communicator and a polemicist par excellence. He dipped into the Ganga, presumably out of faith but also of considerations of electoral gains.
His populism at once appeals to people; it would at anytime and anywhere, but it appeals to the residents of Varanasi who have in the past two years suffered nothing but woes under the rule of the Yadav chiefs, Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh.
In their misrule, as it is widely called, corruption, crime and violence reign supreme. The second largest city of UP after Lucknow, Varanasi is everything a city should not be. Potholes on the road, no street lighting, heaps of garbage strewn around everywhere, noise so deafening as to rupture your ear drums is Varanasi.
The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) preach their identity based on politics but it has few takers. Identity politics is passé. What dominates the minds of the Varanasi voters is the national narrative that centres on economic growth, good and decent governance and accountability of rulers. On this score Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal matter.
The non-descript candidates of BSP and SP are out of reckoning, for their kind of politics belongs to an era that has gone into history. I mean that mandir-mandal era has come to an end. At Varanasi, what we are witnessing is emergence of politics that speaks of economic development equitably distributed and arrival at by just means.
Congress tries to articulate this kind of politics but it does so badly. Its election slogan is secularism and when Sonia Gandhi and her son and daughter mouth it sounds like a well worn out gramophone record. It has presented Modi as an ogre to people and they have rejected it. It presents Kejriwal as an impulsive, immature politician to people and the people in return ask how mature are you Madame Sonia?
Kejriwal is loved by some eighteen per cent of the Muslims of Varanasi. I had extensive meetings with weavers of the town and what comes through from frank talks with them was this: their faith in Kejriwal, their massive indifference to BSP and SP candidates and their utter contempt for the Congress candidate. The dynasty now appears to them as anachronism. It has no place in their mind.
The weavers’ image of Modi is more shaded than it would appear at first. Of course, they all said when we began talking that he is the killer of Muslims at Godhra. But his Godhra image began to blur and then change to something little more benign.
These weavers have their power looms or work on them on contract basis. Their product is made less competitive in comparison with similar products made more cheaply and in larger quantity of manufacture of sarees and clothes by Surat weavers. So the weavers of Varanasi had an added reason, besides Godhra, to be hostile to Modi. It is Modi’s Surat that is hurting their business.
I said that there were reasons why you cannot stand in comparison with Surat weavers. The reason dawned on when power failed in their workshops. Here, I said, is the why you cannot with Surat: Surat weavers have power 24 hours a day while you don’t have continuous power. So sooner does a power loom starts, it stops everyone and then for the lack of power. A thread is stuck in the spindle and it takes time to reset the loom.
When I said Surt weavers and for that matter all of Gujarat has electricity supply 24/7, my hosts were simply stunned. “Is this true, sir or are you just giving us cock and bull story of Gujarat development?” With patience and sincerity you explain to them that Gujarat’s growth is real, their image of Modi shifts away from Godhra and to a more benign image. When you say Godhra happened twelve years ago and since then the state has been peaceful, the weaver believe you, but then ask, “Won’t it happen again?” The last part of my conversation with the weavers extending for two days was most revealing. Some of them said or more correctly, mumbled, “Maybe, maybe he is not so bad but let’s see how he behaves towards our community.”
The real contest is between Modi and Kejriwal; it is weighted in favour of the former. Yet when you think of it, there is really nothing that divides them. Both want clean, accountable, efficient government; both are honest and both want people’s larger involvement in decision making. Secularism is the issue, Kejriwal says, that really sets them apart. Really?
The 2014 elections have transformed the Indian politics. The Hindutva nationalism of the Ram Janmabhoomi variety is now gone. There are no takers for it. It is Modi’s development platform that has triumphed over Ram Janmabhoomi variety. The mandir issue appears in the BJP’s manifesto on the last but one page. The manifesto promises encouragement to Urdu and empowerment of the Waqt boards. Kejriwal too has transformed the Indian politics. The transformation began with Anna’s andolan at Azad Maidan and Ramlila Maidan in 2011. It shook the dynasty.
The things that have not changed, the dynasty and the identify
politics (BSP and SP) are going away to be swept away by this transformation. How deeply symbolic that the ghats at the Ganga should witness this transformation!
By Bharat Wariavwalla from Varanasi