The seemingly disproportionate focus on Varanasi in the 2014 general elections, which will rank alongside the 1977 and 1989 polls as the most aggressively fought and crucial elections, is a moment in time marking the confluence of the city’s rich and diverse past, an ambitious but cacophonic present, and an uncertain yet hopeful future. In the North, Varanasi and Lucknow are locations identified with a modern syncretic culture that evolved over centuries of intercourse between India’s ancient and medieval past. While Lucknow, as the capital city of UP, has surged ahead into a modern age, Varanasi, has harked back to the past; its reputation as the holiest and oldest existing Indian city in the Hindu religious pantheon, leaving no other option open. So when Narendra Modi, announced his candidature from Varanasi, the symbolism left no one in doubt that he was reaffirming his Hindu nationalist credentials without broaching Hindutva or Ram Mandir during electioneering.
But for journalists who arrived in Benares in droves, the journey has been one of discovering the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a delicious euphemism for the participatory co-existence of Hindu and Muslim cultures, the unpardonable neglect towards urban infrastructure development, the famed silk weavers’ livelihood issues, and the ailing Ganga’s polluted waters. But Varanasi’s elevation to the national political discourse, and the focus on its past and present, must be credited to one man’s act of daredevilry that has few precedents in Indian politics. Breaking a tradition of political parties giving each other’s pre-eminent leaders an easy ride to Parliament, Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to throw his AAP-Gandhi topi into Varanasi’s electoral ring fired up the national imagination. Despite a tepid start and few indications of any groundswell in his favour, an untiring Kejriwal and his volunteers have done well to persuade voters through door-to-door visits and public meetings that the Delhi resignation fiasco was unavoidable.
Kejriwal’s entry thrust upon the Congress, the onus of pitching a strong candidate against Modi, if only to stay relevant in a constituency that would invariably become the cynosure of national attention, thanks to Kejriwal’s eyeball grabbing tactics. The physical attacks on Kejriwal and his volunteers, the acrimony that marked the BJP’s no-holds-barred rhetoric against the Election Commission and the Varanasi District Magistrate, and the competing and well-attended road-shows by Modi, Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi on successive days have elevated Varanasi in the national political discourse. Not since former Congress president-turned-socialist JB Kripalani challenged VK Krishna Menon from Mumbai in the 1962 polls on the latter’s flawed handling of the Indo-China dispute, compelling Prime Minister Nehru to campaign extensively for his acolyte, and another socialist icon Raj Narain’s upset victory over Indira Gandhi at Rae Bareli in 1977, has a constituency attracted such attention.
Between Modi’s promise of development and good governance a la his Gujarat model and his adherence to Hindutva politics, Kejriwal’s politics of anti-corruption and empowering the aam aadmi, and the Congress’ claims of upholding India’s secularism, lies that moment in Indian history where Benarasis have a tough choice to make. Their ancestors faced Muslim invaders but evolved a much-prided composite culture that has outlived the several instances of communal rioting in its history or the bomb blasts in recent times. The BJP, AAP and Congress have courted Varanasi with the promise of restoring its past glory. The country has 543 other constituencies and contests that collectively decide India’s future. But none else has encapsulated or debated millennia-old questions of karma, dharma and bhavishya like Varanasi has had to.