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How Modi can change the BJP in Varanasi

Last updated on: March 18, 2014 18:54 IST

Narendra Modi has a once in a lifetime chance to change and take the RSS-BJP-VHP to a new level.

Varanasi is the right place to turn the page on saffron history.

By surrendering to the spirit of mystical Varanasi, Modi and his party can change the trajectory of their political journey.

Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt's fascinating column where she reveals the ground realities in the Battle for India.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate's decision to contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi opens up many possibilities of a new beginning for the BJP and eventually for India, if and only if, Narendra Modi decides to imbibe in its entirety what Varanasi, Kashi or Banares, by whatever name you call it, conveys through its life and times.

The Modi versus Arvind Kejriwal match, if it happens, will be a spectacle, but Modi can turn it into a historic turning point for himself and his Sangh Parivar.

Modi's stakes are far, far higher, when compared to any other contestant in this election.

There is no option for Modi but to rise above expectations, to do something that he has not done since 2002.

In the past he had many opportunities to address the issue of secularism and its intricate link to India's future, but either he failed (as in his Sadbhavana mission) or his expression was found to be a case of too little, too late by the targeted audience when he issued this statement after getting a clean chit in the Gujarat riots in the lower court.

Once again, an opportunity has arrived before Modi and the BJP to break away from their past and make the party politically robust in every sense to take on the Congress in the coming decades.

In all past elections BJP candidates invariably complained that their nearest rival, the Congress, started its election with 20 plus on a scale of 100 while the BJP started with zero.

In one-on-one electoral contests between the Congress and BJP, it is taken for granted that Muslim voters will go with the Congress, giving it an automatic advantage before even a single vote is cast. It will be so even this time.

Varanasi should be considered a godsend to change the status quo.

It is the appropriate time to remember the Varanasi that lives in our subconscious. Much before the days of the Ram Janambhoomi movement and many decades before Hindutva and Hindutvawallah became dirty words in the public discourse, Hinduism as reflected in Varanasi was enchanting and moving, and still is.

There are very few Indian cities which carry in it, in a very organic way, so many beautiful Hindu motifs. Diyas, dwajas, prayers, little temple steps, that divine shine coming out from the small temple doors at evening aarti time, the temple bells, vermillion, saffron dhotis, Jamdani saris and Banaras silks, flowers that newlyweds wear and that also cover the dead bodies, the decoration of shrines and Sanskrit shlokas heard on the steps of the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Assi and other ghats, those uneducated but not unintelligent Indian families' rituals of dubki in the Ganga to wash away all 'earthly sins'.

Many writers have told us how Kashi is the city's ancient identity, giving it a mystic face. Banaras reminds us of this historical city's evolution during British times while Varanasi is more contemporary, coinciding with chaos, commotion and breakdown of civic structure.

There are hundreds of books on Banaras and they say, in essence, how in this land 'Eternity Watches Time', as narrated by the subtitle of the book that has reproduced powerful paintings of the holy city by painter Manu Parekh.

How many Indian cities have attracted the Buddha, as well as great saints like Adi Shankaracharya, Goswami Tulsidas, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Ramakrishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekananda, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati and other spiritual personalities? All the philosophers who have loved Varanasi spoke about their self-discovery when they arrived on the timeless ghats of the Ganga.

Banaras's five kilometres of river banks, where Hindus bathe in the sacred river, has been immortalised by the aam aadmi of India since generations, along with historians, sociologists, religious experts, travellers, and painters like M F Husain, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ram Kumar and Manu Parekh. Since ancient times, the Manikarnika ghat in Banaras is where Hindus wish to die.

Narendra Modi's candidature is a kind of a unique date with THIS Varanasi. He is a controversial political leader accused of not doing enough when communal passions between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarati society spiralled out of control.

Here on the banks of the Ganga the air is different, and that offers the BJP an opportunity. You can touch base here instantly and effortlessly with the civilisation that grew with unmatched human spirit, that only knew the language of tolerance and humanity.

Modi described his latest visit on December 20, 2013, to the city of 1,500 temples as, 'Somnath (the Shiva temple in Gujarat) to Vishwanath (the Shiva temple in Varanasi),' but there is more to it.

On December 21 a small but interesting news item appeared in the Navbharat Times newspaper.

It reported that on December 20 Varanasi witnessed a 'different' Modi. One should not fail to note that even after Modi gaining so much ground in the electoral battlefield, wherever he goes his image of a strong Hindutva leader (along with its negative connotations) precedes him.

The report in Hindi recounts that when Modi visited the famous Kashi-Vishwanath temple, which abuts the Gyanvapi mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, some young Muslim boys waved out and said, 'Modi uncle, salaam!'

It was Friday so they had gathered in the mosque for the Jumma Namaaz. The entrance to the mosque and temple are common. Both structures are divided by the Gyanvapi (well of wisdom).

Like the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy in Ayodhya, the issue of the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque is also in dispute and tension has erupted many times between Hindus and Muslims, but the local people's wisdom has finally prevailed over everything else and peace has been maintained in the mosque and temple, so far.

Modi was taken aback by the Muslim lads' greeting. The report claims that he, too, greeted them back saying, 'Waalaikum-as-salaam', meaning 'Peace be with you, too'. Some other reports noted he said, 'Thank you'.

The Hindi report was titled, 'Varanasi main badle, badle se Modi'. His image that has travelled out of Gujarat is such that a mere courteous response to a few Muslim youth is branded as the 'changed Modi' (badle, badle se Modi), making it to the front page of the local newspaper.

The report quotes temple priest Srikant Mishra rejoicing over how delightful the event was. Mishra, too, said that Modi prayed at the Kashi Vishwanath temple for his successful prime ministerial bid, and promised to return if he became PM.

Also, see how different critics react to Modi's increasing acceptability and his image of a strong challenger.

A bleeding heart liberal and anti-Modiwallah like editor Vinod Mehta in a column on Sunday narrated his thoughts on what if Modi becomes prime minister.

Mehta, who grew up in Lucknow, noted two things very, very cautiously, which would help Modi.

'Ever since he was declared PM-designate,' Mehta wrote, 'Modi has been treading with caution, avoiding baiting Muslims or Pakistan. Instead, he has stuck to his jobs/development theme, resisting even in places like Ayodhya and Varanasi the communal card.'

While ending the column, unlike novelist U R Ananthamurthy, who is disgusted with idea of Modi ruling India, Mehta says, metaphorically, he is not applying for any visa, yet.

There are many voices on the Internet talking about Modi's hidden agenda of Hindu identity being behind his selection of Varanasi.

Even though the BJP won the seat in the 2009 general election, Varanasi was not the safest seat if the party did not put up its strongest candidate here.

Varanasi district has some 30 per cent Muslims out of a population of 3.7 million, that includes the temple city's population of more than 1.4 million. Rajesh Mishra, the Congress candidate in 2009 (he came fourth), has said that in the city, there are approximately 400,000 Muslims, 300,000 Brahmins and almost an equal number of Vaishyas (baniyas).

In the 2009 election the BJP's Dr Murli Manohar Joshi got 30.52% of the votes while muscle man Mukhtar Ansari of the Bahujan Samaj Party won 27.94%. The BJP's margin of victory was as narrow as 17,211 votes.

In the coming weeks the Modi team's attitude, his politics, his speeches, his political plank and his means to score a victory from here will be closely monitored.

Modi's performance in Varanasi would make a difference to him and his party all over India. Varanasi is not a hopeless case like Gujarat's Juhapura-Vejalpur, so Modi will have a chance to start afresh.

In Ahmedabad many BJP leaders don't go even once to the Muslim basti (Muslim-dominated areas) to seek votes. The vicious circle has to be broken where the BJP is unable to give tickets to Muslims just because when they fight on its election symbol they are unable to get the votes of their community or even the BJP's core Hindu votes.

This is the in-built limitation of the BJP's politics. Some argue that they get votes, whatever they get, precisely for this reason. This is a convoluted argument in today's India.

When the atmosphere is not surcharged with communal passion, as is the case right now, the BJP is at a disadvantage because the counting of votes begins with 'minus Muslim votes'.

Sure, it is due to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology, image and branding that they get Hindu votes which constitute their core constituency, but as Modi is selling himself as 'Vikas Purush', the deceptive argument that 'Development and Hindutva are not contradictory' and talking development and propagating exclusive politics secretly will not succeed for long.

Varanasi city, if not the district, is unique if compared to many communally sensitive parts of India.

The writer Ashok Vajpayee has written beautifully on Banaras in a book: 'Banaras exists partly in myth, partly in history. Partly in time, partly in eternity. The Ganga takes away all the dirt of life and living; it soils itself every moment and yet is holy. The divine cohabitates with the profane, immortal goes with utterly moral.'

Modi has a once in a lifetime chance to change and take the RSS-BJP-Vishwa Hindu Parishad to a new level. L K Advani tried to moderate his image, but it failed.

Varanasi is the right place to turn the page on saffron history.

Modi should not forget how it has taken blood and tears to get the BJP leaders entry again into the Juhapura-Sarkhej area in the 2012 assembly election. After 2002, they did not get even one vote in many ballot boxes in Sarkhej.

In 2012, things changed, but just a little.

How can Modi change India profoundly without taking all kinds of Indians within his party fold?

Surely, a tough call for the saffron Modi, but to mix the potency of the Varanasi model with the Gujarat model is an idea worth trying.

All analyses so far claim that Modi may find it difficult to cover the last mile. What they mean is that due to his Hindutva poster boy image, even if his party gets 200 plus seats, allies will be either difficult to get, or will come at a high cost.

If Modi avoids the usual political tactic of polarisation through his campaign style in Varanasi, it may ease the pressure, post-election, in travelling the last mile, if the need arises. 

As Vinod Mehta and many anti-Modi voices have noted, Modi is not talking about the Ram temple or other contentious issues this time, so he has to now take the logical next step, soon.

Notwithstanding the Arvind Kejriwal factor, ethical and tactical politics both demand that the BJP should not go for religious polarisation in Varanasi.

The Hindustan Times reported on Monday that, 'If Mukhtar (Ansari) manages to polarise Muslims in his favour, it may become an all-Hindu-votes-for-Modi situation.'

Kaushal Kishore Mishra, head of the political science department at the Banaras Hindu University, says such a situation will 'add to Modi's margin.'

This is the easiest short cut that Modi must avoid.

The polarisation on Hindu-Muslim lines will create fear.

Varanasi is not about fear. It is about the life and beliefs of the aam aadmi which symbolises India since ancient times.

One wishes that on his next visit to Varanasi, Modi speaks the language of Ustad Bismillah Khan and N Rajam's music that makes Varanasi indelible in our minds.

The Kejriwal challenge will remain a non-event if Narendra Modi charts a new course. In the process, Modi can overgrow the stature of Atal Bihari Vajpayee even before he lands in New Delhi.

On Friday, Sheela said: Modi's Varanasi blues

Will Kejriwal pose a stiff challenge to Modi in Varanasi? Vote below!

Sheela Bhatt