Varanasi awaits Priyanka, but this mahant feels he's the man to battle Modi

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra Photo: PTI
For the past few days, the LIU, or local intelligence unit, of the Uttar Pradesh police has busied itself knocking at all doors on either side of the road leading up to Banaras Hindu University (BHU)’s main gate. The police have meticulously taken down the details of all residents and workers of each household and commercial establishment. The district administration does not want to take any chances when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the city later this week to file his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha polls, scheduled here on May 19, and take out a road show to the BHU.

The police survey could be a commonplace occurrence for other cities, but it is both a new experience and irksome for the residents of Varanasi, who pride themselves on their vibrant open culture of democratic contestation at Kashi's hundreds of roadside lassi and tea stalls.

Banarasis, or the residents of Varanasi, are arguably the sharpest readers of political tea leaves in the country, and to them the extra police precautions have meant that their sitting Member of Parliament is nervous about his prospects. “I fought against the Emergency, but such surveillance is worse than those days,” Chanchal Mukherjee, an elderly bookshop owner in the city’s Bangali Tola, said.

In 2014, Modi won with a landslide from Varanasi. Slated to be the mother of all electoral battles, it eventually ended in a whimper with nearest rival Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal suffering an embarrassing defeat. Much water has flown in the river Ganga since. Modi's popularity isn't what it was then.

Varanasi is agog with the expectation of a glorious battle if Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were to contest. On Sunday, Priyanka said in Wayanad she happily would if Congress president Rahul Gandhi were to ask her. There was, however, speculation that she could contest from Allahabad, but on Monday the Congress nipped it by announcing Yogesh Shukla’s name for that seat.

Excitement in Varanasi is now at fever pitch. There are others keen to contest, including Samajwadi Party’s Surendra Singh Patel, Congress party’s Ajay Rai, and a new aspirant in Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, established in the 16th century by Goswami Tulsidas, the author of Ramcharitamanasa. Mishra is a professor in the department of electronics engineering at the BHU-Indian institute of Technology.

Mishra has also been one of the foremost critics of Modi’s Namami Gange scheme, which he terms a hoax, and of the Centre and BJP-run state government trying to replicate the “Gujarat model of development”, of big roads and riverfront projects, that he says militates against the spirit an ancient city like Varanasi known for its labyrinth of gallis.

Speaking to Business Standard, Mishra said Varanasi’s tragedy has been that “outsiders”, who do not understand the ethos of the city and have strange ideas about making it into a Kyoto or Venice, have represented it in Parliament, when the need is for a local to be its MP. Mishra is keen to contest if he is the common candidate of a united opposition, but fielded by the Congress. Mishra has friends in the Congress, including his neighbour and party leader Mohan Prakash, but his name does not enthuse supporters of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and others.

Earlier this month, local units of some of the smaller parties, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), flouting a diktat from its central leadership, issued an appeal along with Nationalist Congress Party, CPI, Samajwadi Jan Parishad and others, that the opposition should field a common candidate. Most in these parties believe only Priyanka’s candidature would ensure that Samajwadi Party does not field a candidate. They are also willing to forget their 'anti-Congressism' to campaign for her. “Why would we support the mahant? Surendra Singh Patel is a better candidate than him,” SP’s local leader Irshad Khan said, but agreed Priyanka would be the best opposition candidate.

A faction within the Congress has argued that Priyanka suffering a massive defeat at Modi’s hands, and that too in her electoral debut, would be disastrous for her political career. However, political activists, of nearly all hues, believe Priyanka would give Modi a close fight, and might even surprise him.

A senior RSS functionary of Varanasi said locals were upset, including within the Sangh Parivar, because of the manner in which all big projects have gone to contractors from Gujarat and locals have had nor role to play in decisions making. Critics say most of the changes, in the name of building a smart city, have been cosmetic, like changing streetlights, and even there the lights are imports from China. People are also upset at Kashi Vishwanath corridor dislocating people and demolishing smaller temples. “They are robbing Kashi of its soul,” the RSS leader, who did not want to be identified, said.

As for electoral arithmetic, it isn’t just the Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims, who are consolidated against the BJP, but Varanasi’s influential Brahmins say they are looking forward to Priyanka’s candidature. “There is a need to question the kind of development model being thrust on Banaras in the last few years,” Arun Tripathi, a former bureaucrat, said.

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