The pockets of resistance in Modi's Varanasi

BJP has been winning the seat since 1991 except in 2004 when Congress emerged victorious.

The pockets of resistance in Modi's Varanasi
Illustration: Anirban Bora

Sadanand Pandey, 38, is piling up wood for the next funeral. At Manikarnika, eight cremations are taking place simultaneously. Pandey is preparing for the ninth.

It is Monday afternoon. As the sacred waters of the Ganga lap against the ghats of Varanasi, the place reverberates with the chanting of mantras. But in the holy city, Pandey, a wood trader for funerals, feels helpless. Once the elections are over, he says, his house will be razed by the municipality. About 250 multistorey buildings in the neighbourhood — many of which had existed for 200-300 years — have already been demolished to pave the way for a state-of-the-art, 50-ft-wide Kashi Vishwanath corridor, to be built at an estimated cost of Rs 600 crore.

“We voted for the BJP in the 2014 and 2017 (assembly) polls, but not any more,” says Pandey, adding that he won’t receive a single rupee as compensation because he is a tenant in the three-storey house, though four generations of his family have lived there.

For the BJP-led govt in Uttar Pradesh, building the temple corridor is critical. It is a dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the local MP from Varanasi. In 2014, Modi comfortably won the seat by securing 56% votes and defeating his nearest rival and present Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party. Ajay Rai of the Congress stood third.

This time, too, Modi is pitted against Rai, after the Congress brass hesitated in fielding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from there.

The Samajwadi Party, which is fighting this election in an alliance with its erstwhile rival Bahujan Samaj Party, first fielded Shalini Yadav before naming former Border Security Force jawan, Tej Bahadur Yadav, as its candidate. The SP-BSP combo, however, found itself in a soup when the Election Commission rejected Yadav’s nomination as he had failed to submit a certificate saying he was not sacked from government service for either corruption or disloyalty.

When ET Magazine travelled through the city, the ghats as well as the rural pockets of the constituency, Pandey’s of Manikarnika Ghat turned out to be a scattered voice in a place that seemed to be overwhelmingly supporting candidate Modi. Most of the people ET Magazine spoke to didn’t hesitate in proclaiming themselves to be Modi bhakts. Be it Ashok Kumar, a 36-year-old Banarasi sari seller from Sarnath, or Vikash Shastri, a postgraduate student at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), many in the city see Modi’s re-election from Varanasi, a BJP fortress, as a mere formality.


The saffron party has been winning the seat since 1991 except in 2004 when the Congress’s Rajesh Kumar Mishra emerged victorious, mainly due to internal fight in the BJP.

“There’s no contest. With the kind of development in the city — be it new roads, LED lights or cleaner ghats — people have made up their minds to re-elect the prime minister,” says Santosh Kumar Jaiswal, an autorickshaw driver at the city railway station, even as a large group of other drivers and porters gather around him to chant “Modi, Modi”.

Has there been discernible development in this ancient city in eastern UP in the last five years of Modi regime, as have been claimed by Jaiswal and other local citizens? While perceptible changes are noticed in the periphery, the core part of Varanasi with its narrow and claustrophobic bylanes and tardy traffic remains unchanged.

The completion of two key road projects — 17-km-long four-laning from the airport to the city (costing Rs 813 crore) and 16-km-long Varanasi Ring Road phase-I (Rs 759 crore) — has made access to the city and its neighbouring tourist spot, Sarnath, easy. Also, 15 road projects — including Varanasi-Jaunpur, Varanasi– Sultanpur and Varanasi-Azamgarh — with a total length of 1,143 km are at various stages of construction.

A Rs 169 crore multi-modal terminal on the Ganga is now functional. A manager at the site, manned by AFCONS Infrastructure — the company that built the port’s jetty— says four ships made round trips to West Bengal’s Haldia in the last six months, carrying cargo for companies such as Dabur India and PepsiCo.

Meanwhile, about 200 workers, employed by IL&FS Environmental Infrastructure & Services, are tasked to clean the ghats. “You should have seen the dirt five years ago”, says Sonu Sharma, employed by the company as a “helper” with a monthly salary of Rs 6,700.


But slogans of vikas (development) and swachhta (sanitation) alone may not fetch votes in Varanasi or, for that matter, in most parts of India. Caste and community play a part as well as how inclusive development has been.

Asks Mahadev, a 48-year-old rickshaw puller: “Have these new roads changed my life? Are these for the poor? We will vote for cycle this time as Behenji (BSP supremo Mayawati) and Akhilesh Yadav (SP chief ) have come together.” He has always been a BSP supporter, he adds.

In the Muslim-majority locality of Pilikothi, most residents ET Magazine spoke to say they would vote for Congress’s Rai. A majority of them voted for Kejriwal in 2014.

Dalit Vote in Modi’s Village
About 25 km south of the city of Varanasi is Jayapur, a village with 2,974 people, according to Census 2011. It hogged the limelight after PM Modi adopted it under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana five years ago. This resulted in rapid construction of roads, setting up of two bank branches — one each of Union Bank and Syndicate Bank — and a brand-new post office painted bright yellow, not the traditional red.


At the edge of the village where Dalits live, there is an Ambedkar statue. Built in and transported from Gujarat, it was installed at a tiny park at the centre of the neighbourhood. All the homes in the locality have been provided with solar panels and water pipes. But an hour-long chat with a dozen residents — from 20-year-old Jitendra Kumar to 65-year old Sacchi Devi — reveals that most Dalits in Modi’s village won’t vote for the BJP, and will choose the SP-BSP gathbandhan over the Congress. Devi explains why she won’t vote for Modi: “When solar panels and water pipes were installed, we were told that we wouldn’t have to pay for anything. But now, we have to pay monthly bills — Rs 20 for electricity and Rs 40 for water.”

There’s more to Devi’s choice. And that is an underlying message for the BJP. At the height of its power and resources, the party has failed to woo certain sections of the society, especially in the margins, even as Modi’s popularity does not seem to have ebbed an inch.
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