Mother of all battles

The temple city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh has been under the spotlight throughout this election season and will continue to hog the limelight for some more time after the declaration of results.

Varanasi, though underdeveloped and congested, became the most talked-about parliamentary constituency when BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi took a call to stand as the party's candidate there.

It's a city where mythology and history sleep side by side and religion throbs with regular chants and incantations for the blessings of the deities.

BJP readily admits that it has symbolic value and Modi's battle for Varanasi would certainly have a knock-on effect, not least on the neighbouring state of Bihar. At least that's what the party hopes.

The BJP strategists know full well that it is well nigh impossible for the party to corral the magical figure of 272 or thereabouts without bagging a substantial number of seats from these two states that contribute a total of 120 seats.

This is the reason BJP invested loadsamoney, time and energy in this constituency. The newly born Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) added spice to the battle by fielding none other than its honcho, Arvind Kejriwal, who had proved his mettle in the recent Delhi assembly poll. AAP's express purpose in pitch-forking its paramount leader in Varanasi is to trump Modi and become a giant killer thereby sending a message that it has the potential to become a national party.

Other parties like Congress, Samajwadi Party and BSP are trying their level best too for the Varanasi seat. In sum, it's safe to say that it's the mother of all battles in this general election.

The saffron party knows that consolidation of Hindu votes is a no-brainer here because it is a place, just like Ayodhya, where the line between religion and culture is pretty thin.

In other words, you don't need to give inducements, pecuniary or otherwise, to 'buy' the votes: just give the impression that you are a Hindu devotee and a feeling of esprit de corps will work in your favour.

It's for nothing that Modi invoked the deities covertly and overtly as soon as he fetched up at the city. At a rally before he filed his nomination papers he said that though his party had sent him there it was actually 'Ma Ganga' who brought him there. His opponents say that it was a Hindutva-laced speech.

He told the crowds that Mahatma Gandhi had settled down by the Sabarmati river in Gujarat, and he became known as the 'Saint of the Sabarmati'.  He did not say that, just like the Mahatma, he had come down to River Ganga and he would be known as the 'Saint of the Ganga'. That's, of course, left to the audience.

Though he was accused of invoking religion to gain votes, he often escaped the wrath of the Election Commission by a whisker. Like his 'Ma Ganga' speech, his other speeches, roadshows and rallies have
all had an underlying Hindutva message.

In Ayodhya, another temple town, Hindu deity Ram's picture adorned the stage of a BJP rally. But the culture and religion of the place are so interlocked that it's a bit hard to separate them from each other. Perhaps this is the reason the EC had to wink at many things that apparently crossed the 'Lakshman rekha'.

Whatever the reason, the saffron party took advantage of this religio-cultural feature of the place in a bid to polarise votes.

And it's not surprising that some BJP workers chanted 'Har Har Modi' in an effort to deify him so even the women voters and people from the sundry Hindu castes might vote for Modi without asking questions.

Many Hindus, mostly outside Varanasi, hold no brief for such deification moves. Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth Swaroopanand Saraswati reprimanded the party and Modi for encouraging such practices. Modi himself then had to red-flag his overzealous workers. Later some people came out with what they termed Modi-pooja (worship), and the explanation one of the party's key spokespersons gave on a channel was that it was part of "our culture". Period.

Will the polarisation efforts of the party pay dividends? It would seem so, not least because the Muslim votes could split to favour BSP, SP and Congress. Who knows even the Muslim weavers in the constituency may plump for the lotus in the hope that their lot would be a lot better, if not at a level with their counterparts in Gujarat, if Modi becomes prime minister.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in India. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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