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Turbulence strikes Varanasi's Muslims

April 04, 2014 12:39 IST

"Our only solace is that Modi will win Varanasi, but there will be a by-election here. Modi will not be able to cobble 272 seats to become prime minister so he will remain the chief minister of Gujarat. He will resign from Varanasi and then we will ensure Kejriwal's handsome win."'s Sheela Bhatt reports on how Varanasi's 300,000 Muslim voters are strategising their vote.

"We are very sure that nobody will allow a Muslim to win from the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat ever because the Kashi Viswanath temple is located here. They won't like a Muslim MP's presence at meetings of the trust that manages the temple administration."

This statement is made to by Ateek Ansari, a journalist turned social worker, in Varanasi. By "they", he meant a majority of Varanasi's Hindu voters.

Whoever gets elected from Varanasi, Ansari says, gets nominated by virtue of being the MP to the management of this historic and ancient temple, so it is unlikely that a Muslim MP will ever be elected from the temple town.

Muslims in Varanasi, Ansari adds, have realised lately that when you participate in the election process with the sole purpose to "defeat" a candidate, eventually they themselves lose out badly because their decision, normally, leads to a polarisation of Hindus in favour of the candidate they have set out to defeat.

It happened with Mukhtar Ansari in the last Lok Sabha election.

Local Muslims believe firmly that in 2009, when the 'outsider' candidate, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, contested against the Bahujan Samaj Party's Mukhtar Ansari, the controversial Ansari got Dalit and Muslim votes in abundance and was all set to win the election.

But, after lunchtime on Election day five years ago, BJP workers, with the help of the local media, spread the news that Muslims had voted en masse for Ansari and that the temple city would get a Muslim MP, and that too the controversial Ansari, to represent Shivji's city.

Voting in Hindu-dominated areas shot up post lunch and changed the voting trend. Dr Joshi won by a thin margin -- a little over 17,000 votes -- in a constituency of 1.3 million voters.

Dr Joshi should thank Narendra Modi that he didn't get a ticket from Varanasi this time as he stubbornly insisted on. Varanasi residents complain against their sitting MP for not taking a serious interest in the city's affairs. The BJP controls Varanasi's civic corporation, and its administration is pathetic.

Varanasi -- Kashi, Benares, the holiest city of the Hindus -- is simply not liveable.

Poor Muslims and Hindus live in dingy mohallas alongside the continuous blare of power looms. It is an inhuman existence, but the power looms bring in the money.

In the city, not even half a kilometre of road is clean or has an even surface. Electricity is provided for around 12 to 14 hours a day, making life miserable.

Mukhtar Ansari, a Varanasi resident, was at an advantage the last time as citizens were thinking local due to the crisis in the civic administration. They want someone from within who has a clear idea of their plight. The total absence of development is a huge election issue.

However, Modi's candidature has pushed back all serious local issues related to living standards.

Identity politics is once again in focus.

Modi's image from the 2002 riots in Gujarat is the only element on the minds of most Muslim voters.

Scores of Muslims spoke to said, "The 2002 riots are unforgettable." Modi, they add, has tried to impose a "terror tag" on the community.

Modi is neither in our minds nor in our hearts, says Ateek Ansari. Muslims in the city, he says, want to ensure that any candidate who opposes Modi will be supported wholeheartedly, but strategically.

The gameplan is to ensure that Muslim support to any candidate in this election does not incite polarisation of Hindus towards Modi. Muslims will remain tight-lipped this time to ensure that their favoured candidate, be it from the Congress or the Samajwadi Party or the BSP, or the Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal, remains neutral enough to get Hindu votes too, to add to the massive Muslim support.

Muslims will decide their preference after the campaign reaches its climax in the city to avoid Hindu polarisation as much as possible.

Ateek Ansari, who is helping Kejriwal, is hopeful that the youth of the city and villagers from nearby areas that fall within Varanasi constituency will find Kejriwal an attractive proposition.

Varanasi's Congress leaders and Muslim leaders feel the Congress will bring in a surprise element, else it would not have waited so long to declare its candidate.

Local Congress leaders discuss a new name for Varanasi seat every day, including Ajai Rai, Rajesh Mishra, and even a member of the Gandhi family, to take on Modi.

Ajay Rai had switched over to the Samajwadi Party from the BJP in 2009 to contest against Dr Joshi; he finished third behind Dr Joshi and Mukhtar Ansari.

Rai has an ongoing conflict with Mukhtar Ansari and has a considerable following among Brahmins and Bhumihars. The Varanasi police arrested him in 2010 for allegedly trying to set a trader afire, booked him under the Gangsters Act and sent him to the district jail.

Rai is now a Congress MLA from Pindra and has won the past five assembly elections.

Muslim political analysts are waiting for the Congress candidate to be named with intense apprehension. If the Congress candidate takes away more Muslim votes from Kejriwal (like Rai is expected to do since he enjoys clout over a section of Muslims having done them favours) and not enough of Modi's Hindu votes, then Muslims will be very disappointed.

In Varanasi, prestige lies not only in victory. The loser too will have some honour if Modi wins by a narrow margin and not a huge one.

This shows the level of political interest among the Muslims after Modi's candidature in Varanasi was announced.

Mukhtar Ansari, who first expressed a desire to take on Modi, later issued a statement through his Quami Ekta Dal that there should be a common candidate supported by all political parties against Modi.

Since 2009, when he came within striking distance of victory, his stature has risen in his community as the bully who almost destabilised Joshi and the BJP.

For the last 20 years, with the exception of 2004 when the Congress won Varanasi, BJP candidates have been elected from the city where around 300,000 Muslims live and earn their livelihood, largely from the silk and art silk sari trade.

More than one million people are supported by the textile trade; some one million Muslims depend on the weaving and trading of saris in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Mukhtar Ansari is now imprisoned in Agra jail, and leads a lavish life there with his many cell phones. He has been accused of serious crimes, one of them related to the murder of BJP legislator Krishnanand Rai.

The Samajwadi Party rejected his offer for a common candidate, with UP minister and Mulayam Singh Yadav's brother Shivpal Yadav, saying, 'We have already fielded Kailash Chaurasia. We will not take support from any goonda, badmaash (hooligan). Everyone knows we are secular. Those who wish to strengthen secular forces can support us.'

Muslim leaders -- because of Modi's presence in the fray -- openly oppose any move by Mukhtar Ansari to declare his candidature, saying, "He will only help Modi win."

Many issued a statement that the BJP wants Ansari to stand against Modi so that Kejriwal's sure shot votes get divided and Modi can win comfortably with the help of Hindu polarisation.

"In this emergency kind of situation Mukhtar Ansari should declare that in order to stop communal forces and to avoid a division of Muslim votes he will sacrifice himself and not stand in the election," one Muslim leader suggested.

They are determined to ensure that no tainted Muslim emerges against Modi lest it makes the choice of Hindu voters easy.

A great churning is taking place in the minds of Muslims these days. No one wants Modi to win, so everyone is looking to the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party. The Samajwadi Party's Kailash Chaurasia and the BSP's Vijay Jaiswal are considered lightweight candidates.

Ateek Ansari feels Arvind Kejriwal's arrival in Varanasi has given Muslims a chance to cast a positive vote. Muslims, he says, must get out to vote to ensure someone's victory and not defeat, as they did in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

Kejriwal is one candidate who meets this requirement. Hindus will also vote for him, Ateek Ansari claims. Muslim leaders argue that Kejriwal is not someone -- like Mukhtar Ansari -- who will alarm Hindus into going en masse to the other side after seeing the Muslim vote going in his favour.

Mukhtar Ansari is a polarising figure so the BJP could not be defeated the last election. But Arvind Kejriwal will get Hindu votes irrespective of where the Muslim vote goes, if he can project himself as a strong candidate among non-BJP parties.

Kejriwal has made a serious attempt to consolidate Muslim votes behind him. Before arriving in Varanasi last month, his party called many Muslim leaders, and a meeting was arranged between him and Mufti Abdul Batin Nomani in the densely populated, dingy, Azad Park area.

"Nobody likes Modi," Nomani says. "Varanasi is a secular city. Amanpasand (peace-loving) people stay here. There is a Kejriwal wave."

The representative body of hundreds of thousands of Varanasi weavers is called the Boonkar Biradarana Tanzeem. The weavers, called boonkars, are represented in clusters of villages. There are seven clusters, each with a chief known as sardar.

One cluster represents 22 villages, while another has 52 villages. These sardars are most in demand at election time.

Kejriwal got Maqbul Hasan, representing the chaudai (14) group, to meet him and discuss the issues of weavers. But other sardars didn't turn up to meet Kejriwal. The sardars exert power over Muslim weavers. If they declare 'murari bandh (no weaving)', then the weavers of Benares strike work and not even one knot will be woven in sari factories.

"Modi will win because he has played a psychological card," says Ateek Ansari. "The people of Varanasi dream of seeing flyovers all over the city. They see clean water flowing in the Ganga. The magical dream of development is being spread here, there and everywhere. Even the media is helping Modi in making his communal face secondary to his development plank."

After a pause, he adds, "Our only solace is that Modi will win Varanasi, but there will be a by-election here. Modi will not be able to cobble 272 seats to become prime minister so he will remain the chief minister of Gujarat. He will resign from Varanasi and then we will ensure Kerjiwal's handsome win."

Murtaza Jafri, a businessman and Bhojpuri filmmaker, was recently invited by the local BJP to join the party, but he turned down the invitation. He told, "Humein bulava aya tha amir ka, lekin hum na kar sake sauda zameer ka (I was invited by the emperor but I could not trade my soul)."

Jafri, however, is positive, "Modiji toh jeet hi jayenge (Modi will win)."

Jafri is a personal friend of actor Manoj Tiwari who has acted in his films and is contesting the election from New Delhi. Jafri will camp in New Delhi to help garner Purvanchali votes for Tiwari, a BJP candidate.

And in this election, when you vote for the BJP, it is a vote for Modi.

Jafri laughs wryly, pointing out the irony that in effect he will end up seeking votes for Modi in New Delhi.

Image: A Muslim resident of Varanasi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

Will strategic voting by Muslims rein in Modi's march in Purvanchal/UP? Vote below!

Check out Sheela Bhatt's fascinating columns on Election 2014

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Sheela Bhatt/