From the day the Election Commission notified that the final and the ninth phase of the Lok Sabha elections 2014 would include Lok Sabha constituency no. 77 (Varanasi!) there has been a sudden, though finite, shift of the political capital of India. As keen students of Indian political practice and worried citizens of this country, we could not resist the urge to be direct observers of the grand finale to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This was despite the dissuasion by many of our friends and well-wishers — concerned about our safety — from entering the political battlefield (termed as ‘War’ansi by some in the media). Having come, we must say, we do not regret it, one bit.
From the time of our arrival at Kashi, the spectacle that met our eyes was something perhaps none of the other 542 Lok Sabha constituencies could have witnessed. Yes, many other constituencies have also seen hooliganism, violence and macho-masculine displays of real and imagined power under the pretext of campaigns. However, none of the campaigns, despite being creative and myriad in their forms, could lay claim to have become the focal point, where almost all the major national issues earned the spotlight and played themselves out, on the streets and gullies. Be it, the debates on secularism versus communalism, development versus destruction, hype versus reality, paid media versus free press, patriarchy versus modernity, jingoism versus nationalism or just on the style and sincerity of campaigns. Some of these and related issues are likely to take a definitive shape, post-Varanasi election, for better or worse.
What has been equally striking to us is that this election may also decide whether Varanasi, which is home to ancient practices of many religions, will see religion becoming a badge to wear for exclusivity or if it will be allowed to be a gel that binds and bonds people. What we know from history is that for hundreds of years, Varanasi has been a syncretic abode of different faiths, philosophies and practices. Just as the city has been important from time immemorial among the various strands of Hindu believers, it has been equally an important holy destination for Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, agnostics, etc. Against this backdrop, the symbolic value for the whole country, of the outcome of happenings in Varanasi must not be lost sight of.
More on the field: Throughout our stay in Varanasi, the politicisation of the citizenry was most evident. It seemed as if the fight was mainly between the BJP and the AAP with an insignificant presence of the Congress, SP and BSP. The testimony to this was a simple walk around the streets, wearing AAP white topis (caps). People would either approach you saying they are fully with the Aam Aadmi Party while others yelled out disdainfully that the jhadoo (broom) would lose to the kamal (lotus) and that we were wasting our time; without any provocation except the cap with the jhadoo to boot. No other party experienced this. We learnt later that this was the common experience of many a volunteer across the five assembly constituencies that comprise the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat.
We found a stark contrast between the campaigning styles of the AAP and the BJP with the former using persuasive skills and distributing informative pamphlets about candidates to convince people to vote for them while the latter mostly whizzed around on bikes yelling out Modi’s name and chanting “Har Har Modi... Ghar Ghar Modi” or forcibly putting the saffron “Modi for PM” caps on residents who did not dare protest, even when they wished to. A rickshaw driver who was wearing the saffron topi and displaying the flag on his cycle’s handle suddenly burst out with expletives against the BJP — which was a mischievous twist to the Modi chant! — even as he was riding it. He confessed that he was actually supporting the AAP, but that he and many rickshaw-wallahs (a critically important group for a mobile campaign strategy) were being forced to wear the saffron caps by some of the aggressive BJP campaigners. One rickshaw driver on being asked which party he supported, gave a non-committal reply saying that he had not decided, but on further questioning revealed that he was afraid of giving an answer that may provoke people to react violently. The polarisation could not have been sharper.
We also noticed some quiet AAP supporters who did not exhibit any ostensible signs of support but a sharp eye would notice a small broom sticker at a private corner of their shop, stall or vehicle.
A lassi-wallah near Kachehri falling in Varanasi North hesitantly came up to us after we fulfilled our duties as customers, to say that his brother was a district office-bearer of the Samajawadi Party but that he had been advised by him that the vote this time should go to Arvindji.
The show of strength at Kejriwal’s roadshow on May 9, 2014, replete with supporters yelling themselves hoarse, with not a single paid volunteer about, was most significant in a city which has been the bastion of the BJP for the last 20 years; where, we learnt, that much like elsewhere in the country, the spirit of volunteerism in political work has been overshadowed by the politics-as-profit enterprise.
The hot topic of discussion at all places in Banaras was the upcoming election. While having a political discussion in public places with our friends, other people would carefully listen to the exchanges and gradually join in the conversation and express their views as well. This was very different from the disinterest or cynicism among people that one is wont to, in a metropolis like Bangalore.
Whoever wins the number game, from our first hand experience, we are sure of one thing: Good politics has established its strikingly visible relevance. Varanasi will be a harbinger of hope for the increasing tribe of those like us who believe that electoral politics need not always be the first resort of the worst scoundrel.
The authors are Bangalore-based lawyers