‘Mool Karyakarta Is Disheartened’; ‘Modi’s Gujarati Friends Have Cornered All Benefits’: Murmurs And Stories Behind The Almost-Upset In Varanasi

Sumati Mehrishi

Jun 05, 2024, 07:06 PM | Updated Jun 06, 2024, 08:47 PM IST

A banner in Narendra Modi's support in Varanasi (Image credit: Sumati Mehrishi)
A banner in Narendra Modi's support in Varanasi (Image credit: Sumati Mehrishi)
  • The story of the Uttar Pradesh elections was that KL Sharma had a higher winning margin in Amethi than Narendra Modi in Varanasi.
  • How did this come to be?
  • Modi's victory in Varanasi was never a subject of doubt. The people of Kashi credit him for the transformation in Kashi, for the infrastructural upliftment and for his devotion for Shiva.

    According to the Election Commission numbers, Modi defeated Ajay Rai by 1,52,513 votes, bagging 6,12,970 votes against Rai's 4,60,457 votes. 

    In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi's victory margin was 3.72 lakh votes. In 2019, Modi received an assuring 63.6 per cent vote share defeating Ajay Rai. Modi polled 6,73,453 votes and Rai 1,52,456.

    Voter complacency, weak communication between voter and the BJP worker resulting in low turnout at the booth, "udaaseen worker" are the three prime reasons that let Modi down this time in the constituency.

    According to a senior BJP leader in Varanasi, the vote Congress managed to get in the 2024 Lok Sabha poll in North Varanasi, South and Cantonment, was bigger even than “what they have previously secured in Vidhan Sabha polls.” 

    The low voting percentage did not help either. “In parts of urban Varanasi, the response was like in rural Varanasi. I have no hesitation in admitting that we failed and failed miserably in communicating with the voter and getting him to the booth.”

    In South Varanasi, the heart of spiritual rejuvenation and the cradle of ghats and temples, and development centered on pilgrimage and tourist inflow, the BJP managed to scrape through “with nearly 16,000 votes”. In 2019, this number was close to 60,000.

    Admittedly, the SP and the Congress were contesting that election separately but even so, a margin this thin on Varanasi South tells it own story.

    The consolidated vote of Samajwadi Party and Congress is a natural means and result. BSP plunging in performance made things worse.

    Modi's association with Varanasi broke open the seal to multipronged change that had not touched Varanasi for seven decades after Independence.

    In the recent lease of contribution is the infrastructural upliftment in the Shivpur-Phulvaria-Lahartara stretch; expansion of petroleum facilities in Baitalpur, expansion of electricity related infrastructure, building, widening and repair of roads and infrastructure connecting Varanasi's villages, multistorey barrack facility for police personnel, upgradation of emergency-health related infrastructure, a drug warehouse, added infrastructure for medical staff, the improvement of Varanasi-Bhadohi highway.

    In Rohaniya, the building of the four-lane road towards Mirzapur, the experience of the Varanasi ring road that twirls the visitor smoothly on the Varanasi- Mirzapur highway near Raja ka Talab, the construction of flyovers within Varanasi, continue to be praised by the people of Varanasi regardless of religion, occupation, caste.

    The Varanasi ropeway, a cancer hospital, and other facets dedicated to people of Varanasi and the region are other additions. 

    Yet, in 2024, Varanasi has drastically withdrawn numbers from Modi. It is as if something has been snatched away from Modi in his surrender to Varanasi and Baba Vishwanath - on work and devotion. 

    This time, the BJP made an effort to localise Modi's campaign. It came up with the slogan, "Hamar Kashi, Hamar Modi." It would make one wonder why BJP needed this slogan in the first place for a two-time MP for his third straight contest from the seat of Hindu power and Hindutva.

    The INDI alliance candidate was Ajay Rai. A Congress leader with a previous stint in the BJP and the Samajwadi Party. Rai was propelled by the INDI alliance on his identity as a "local". The INDI alliance came up with the slogan "Kashi ki Rai" - meaning the "Idea of Kashi". 

    Perhaps, on the lines of "Idea of India" - a secularized concept where Hindutva is presented as a problematic votive destabilizing the nation. Rai as "Kashi ki Rai" (they punned on the word) would present Modi as an outsider.

    While the BJP presented the idea of owning the already owned Modi, the Congress slogan internalised Rai's role in Kashi. The leader said, “this internalising Rai has been a project for several years now.”

    Considering Modi doesn't leave anyone much to do, in Kashi, he and not Rai had a dazzling report card. Modi has praised the efforts of volunteers in cleaning the ghats and related structures and celebrated the energies.

    In Rai’s campaign, the allies went for an attack on Modi's work, pointing how Modi's "neglect" of the Ganga, intervention in Varanasi has harmed the holy city instead of the perceived revival.

    The opposition came up with a good coordination between social media narratives panning Modi's developmental work and Ganga rejuvenation work and a stirred-up discontent on ground. Before the lokarpan of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, Modi was presented as a destroyer of the "pauranic nagri" by a section of locals.

    The Kashi Vishwanath corridor was seen as anti-local and anti-Kashi in the social media narratives by these sections. The alliance came together to make use of such emotions. For example, in a video, Rai was seen attacking Modi and "Gujarat ke mitr" for the rejuvenation efforts of the Pushkar Kund in Varanasi. 

    Rai says that Modi's friends from Gujarat swallowed crores in the rejuvenation of the pond -- "karodon rupiya dakaar liya" -- yet the pond has algae floating on it. Small complaint against gargantuan development brought by Modi, may be? But when project “Gujarati” is the aim, the green algae on the pond works like gold on social media.

    The idea of presenting Modi as disconnected from the roots of Kashi and an outsider succeeded and helped INDI swallow Modi's vote. 

    The proof is the vote margin of 2024 and its comparison with the voter margins of 2019 and 2014. The senior BJP leader told this author: "This vote difference this time is not just about consolidation of SP-Congress vote. It is much bigger. They have been able to tap into vote from across other sections as well." Varanasi's BJP unit is waiting for statistics to ponder further.

    The BJP perhaps has faced the strong lash of youth vote going to Congress. The main reasons cited here: lack of vacancies for jobs in UP, unemployment and most importantly the vice of paper leaks.

    BJP, evidently, as seen in 2024, is ignorant or lacking teeth to counter negative propaganda against Modi's work in Varanasi, or the region or the state. The communication seems scattered between what has to be conveyed about his work or whether his work should be spoken about at all in Varanasi where it is visible as a new, transformed Varanasi.

    The INDI alliance campaign has found chinks in Modi’s armour. It is gushing through them to make use of the negative picture of Modi it has created. 

    Modi is known for completely melting down armours to reshape them. Either he does that or makes a course correction by countering negative narratives.

    But this MP is different. He happens to be the PM candidate with the single largest party that has shrunk below the magic number. He will focus on his constituency and the nation. Countering negative narratives was not his job -perhaps. This is where the BJP faltered – it seems.

    The BJP has remained focussed on brand Modi and de-focussed on how it is being splashed. For example, in its narrative, there has not been a mention of the state that South Varanasi was in the civic and structural aspects before Modi took over in 2014. The “before and after” was absent in visual language. Voter became “complacent”.

    The "haath badlega haalaat" visual campaign of Congress is not limited to Varanasi. It is very much part of its visual language in other constituencies.

    The striking irony -- in Varanasi is that many of these banners were placed at parts of the city that have seen some or the other infrastructural change under Modi. Poverty is the message in these visual banners.

    On the other hand, BJP had gone to the campaign with all pro-poor policies from Modi and better lives at the domestic front. Congress has been able to garner votes despite the lack of any specific entrant. The idea created is that Modi is going for mere cosmetic change and sprucing up the facade.    
    This made Modi vulnerable in Varanasi in 2024 and will, further, in the coming elections.

    In a BJP worker's mind, the thought currently is that despite Modi's transformative work in Varanasi and a favourable mandate in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, Modi's vote dipped in his own spiritual bastion.

    They feel that this is a reflection of state governance, where Yogi Adityanath, respected and adored for his emotion for the "janbhavana" (sentiments of people), law and order, and seva, should be a little more flexible (the same has been heard in Ayodhya).

    This aspect has been mentioned by a few workers and confirmed by a senior leader. He says, "The local leadership has to be available for the worker. When his tasks are stuck due to some reason or another, he expects the local leadership to help. The local leadership ought to be responsive and responsible. There are times when he needs help from the police. If he is not given any attention, how will he work? The least the worker expects is support from one's own."

    He adds, "There has to be flexibility. We have to work on empowering the karyakarta."

    At the Varanasi office of the BJP, where Sunil Bansal held a crucial meeting during the last crucial days of the campaign before voting, there were murmurs of "karyakarta udaaseen hai". The reason for the comment from a BJP worker from outside of Varanasi was not based on the factor of the rising heat. It was on the lacking spirits to campaign. Reasons were not discussed by him.

    Bansal's focus, aim and purpose was on increasing the vote share. For that, he spoke about the minutest detail that would go into the booth-voter-karyakarta connection on the day of polling and days prior to polling. However, it was felt that Bansal's experience, sharp insights, his unique art of enthusing the workers should have landed earlier or early.  

    "Karyakarta udaseen hai" came as a rebound. A worker form Lucknow spoke of how of the recent lateral entries from other parties to the BJP demoralised the "mool karyakarta". 

    According to him, lateral entries at the different levels were seen making their impact on the traditional way of campaigning where the BJP, RSS and the VHP would appear as one force. A day before the campaign would end, he pointed that workers from the outside were all assembled at the election office.

    "Many spend time on their phones instead of connecting verbally with each other or discussing how the campaign can be sharpened, or what they see on the ground, etc. They are all glued to their phones. They will upload some pictures sitting here on social media and go back to where they came from."

    Another worker on the condition of anonymity said that the respect and dignity of the "mool" karyakarta in the sangathan was dwindling. "A lot has changed recently. The karyakarta goes to any extent to serve the party and takes all challenges on his chin. But the karyakarta himself is the most pained man. Yet, because of his commitment to the cause, we give our best."

    The Left backed-media has given full support to Rai's campaign in 2024. With severely hurt and shrunk margin achieved by Modi, they are likely to give a whole-hearted support to voices against Modi's presence as Member of Parliament from Varanasi – towards 2027.

    The senior BJP leader mentions an interesting point. This is not the first time that Rai being a local was the pitch of Congress's campaign. "Rai has been presented as a local even in a contest against Murli Manohar Joshi." 

    In a scenario where a weakened BSP is the reason for BJP's discomfort in UP, Varanasi is no exception to the caste-phenomenon that has most intensely re-gripped Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s surrender to Varanasi is not being valued - at least electorally, or his being taken for granted owing to reasons the Hindu voter deems right.

    The one concept that's emerging from Varanasi in 2024 is that the INDI alliance mission would be to use the weaknesses of the state government, use them to counter the BJP's centre role, and use that further to chip, erode and break Varanasi's acceptance of Modi. 

    In the 2024 Lok Sabha poll, it was blended with “people and Kashi hurt by Modi’s development”, “Modi’s Gujarati friends swallowed the money of Kashi.” Presenting Modi as “corrupt” in short. In a way, Modi’s connection with Kashi will be used for further “cutting him to size”. 

    Remove the sacred, the spiritual, the cultural, the Sanatani, from an electoral win, Varanasi would just be any other city. And that perhaps is the INDI alliance goal aimed at Modi in 2024 and after.     

    In such a scenario, if you take out Modi from Varanasi for a moment, just one moment, Varanasi will be seen perhaps swinging back to INDI with every element of development brought by Modi.

    As of now, the BJP's belief, that Varanasi is the stronghold of BJP, holds. BJP has lost Ayodhya. In the rhythm of creation and destroying, Modi 3.0 needs to spend more time in Varanasi to deepen the exercise towards preservation. 

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