4-10 April 2014 #701

The vote in Varanasi

The battle for India’s soul is being waged in the Hindu heartland in next week’s election
Ajaz Ashraf
VARANASI-- The chant of ‘Har har Modi’ filled the air in Hinduism’s holiest city of Varanasi. That the supporters of Narendra Modi dared to equate him with Lord Shiva was audacious. Modi is the candidate from the Hindu right BJP in India’s elections next month. Challenging him in Varansi is the leader of the citizen’s party, the AAP.

At a recent campaign rally in the city, Kejriwal had been criticising Modi’s Gujarat model of development when the muezzin’s call to prayer rent the air. Kejriwal paused in his speech. At the end of azaan, a cry of “Har Har Mahadev” arose, joined by thousands of voices, of which many belonged to Muslims. Perhaps never before had a Hindu symbol or slogan been usurped from the BJP, that too, for uniting rather than dividing people.

Those few seconds symbolised Varanasi’s syncretic mixture of Hinduism and Islam. Varanasi lives in binaries. The heaps of garbage mock its holiness. And Modi’s decision to contest from Varanasi has triggered a countervailing force, now coalescing around Kejriwal.

Modi and Kejriwal exemplify two contrasting philosophies and personalities. Modi has assiduously cultivated a persona of a decisive leader, emphasises growth, flaunts his proximity to big business, and dislikes engaging in debates. He struts and throws innuendos against his rivals, puffing up his 56-inch chest. Though his campaign focuses on development, to his obsessive followers he quintessentially remains the Emperor of the Hindu soul (Hindu Hriday Samrat).

Kejriwal, on the other hand, is puny, and in every way the man next door. He refuses to make the sartorial switch from the pant-shirt ensemble to kurta-pajama. This places him outside the entrenched political class, and imparts credibility to his stinging attacks against the politicians, their corrupt ways, their symbiotic relationship with big business. He rails against the development model he feels is loaded against ordinary folks, particularly farmers.

And it is in Varanasi that the epic battle is being waged between the larger-than-life personality of Modi and the perceived moral authority of Kejriwal.

It is a complex electoral arithmetic. No longer is it enough to add the number of Brahmin voters to those of Vaishya caste and credit it to the BJP’s electoral account. You can’t assume that Modi is bound to receive the overwhelming support of Kurmis, a peasant caste. A good many Kurmis are inclined to AAP, applauding it for highlighting the appropriation of agricultural land to benefit industrialists. There are Dalits whose loyalty to the matriarch UP chief minister Mayawati wears thin, and are split in their admiration for Modi and Kejriwal.

Indeed, both have an appeal cutting across the caste divide. Modi’s platform is grassroots Hinduism with the Gujarat development model. Kejriwal’s crusade against corruption resonates across the religious, caste and class divide, especially in Varanasi where the crumbling infrastructure is blamed on corruption.

This isn’t to imply that caste identities have melted away. But there are cracks in the mould of India’s identity politics, perhaps because of two national personalities contesting from Varanasi. The reason caste divisions are eroding is partly due to migration to metros and people thinking beyond the politics of identity.

Reservation of jobs for the disadvantaged is now considered an irreversible aspect of social reality, blunting the backlash from the upper crust. Then there is the inability of subaltern caste leaders to meld together the heterogeneous Dalits through policies to improve their economic conditions.

Kejriwal has goodwill among Muslims for taking the fight into Modi’s Gujarat, but this is not grounded in the politics of identity. The popular refrain among Muslim voters is that Kejriwal speaks of social and economic justice, which is what the community wants.

Incredible as it may sound, Modi hasn’t as yet won Varanasi, as India’s mainstream media make it out to be.

[email protected]

Read also:

Modi's momentum, KANAK MANI DIXIT

The shaky pillar of Indian democracy, ANURAG ACHARYA

Infographic: Lok Sabha elections

Locking horns with the BJP

Target: crony capitalism

India’s left-of-centre Third Front

The Muslim myth

The media is the message in stereotyping the Muslim voter in India

At election time in India, the mainstream media likes to predict that Muslims will turn out in overwhelmingly high numbers to vote, driven by their passion for the politics of identity. No empirical evidence is ever furnished to sustain this narrative.

This has acquired the aura of truth in the last two decades as the Hindu ‘upper’ castes and middle class switched over from the Congress to the BJP. But what diminished the political heft of these groups was that Muslims and Dalits, who had sustained Congress domination for decades, didn’t follow them into the BJP.

The reverse, in fact, happened. Alarmed at the BJP’s habit of demonising Muslims to consolidate the Hindu vote, they sought to combine with other social groups to tactically exercise their franchise in favour of groups best placed to defeat the saffron alliance. In determining their primary interest and identifying parties most likely to promote it, Muslims don’t behave any differently from other social groups. But what distinguishes the choice of Muslims from that of others is the importance they place on their own security.

Despite this, the voting pattern among Muslims is as diverse as any other social group. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey of the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election shows that 39 per cent of Muslims voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP), down from the 45 per cent in the 2007 assembly election. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) mopped 20 per cent of Muslim votes, an increase of three per cent from 2007. In other words, even though the SP won a majority in 2012, its support among Muslims was eroded, challenging the media’s analysis which saw them as having played a crucial role in the rise to power of Uttar Pradesh strongman and scion, Akhilesh Yadav.

Muslim votes for Samajwadi Party:

Muslim votes for Bahujan Samaj Party:

It’s not just Muslims. The same CSDS survey shows that the BJP secured 38 per cent of the Brahmin votes in 2012, down from the 44 per cent in 2007, 29 per cent of the Rajput votes, registering a steep decline from the 46 per cent in 2007, and 42 per cent of the Vaishya votes, a 10 per cent decrease from 2007.

These figures show that Muslims don’t rally behind one party, both Muslims and upper castes have their own political favourites, but the degree of support for them varies from election to election.

There is no denying that the BJP’s support among the Muslims is negligible. And this is understandable since it has defined its politics as anti-minorities in order to shore up its Hindu vote. The BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi may have chosen to harp on development, but for Muslims his very persona rekindles memories of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat.

The apprehension among Muslims about Modi could inspire them to turn out in extremely high numbers on the polling day. Or persuaded by the media hype that Modi’s march to power is inevitable, they could be dissuaded from exercising their franchise in large numbers. Muslim turnout is usually lower than the national average, dipping to 46 per cent, as against the national average of 58 per cent, in the 2004 elections.

What explains the media stereotype about the voting behaviour of Muslims? Perhaps because journalists are overwhelmingly upper caste Hindus who buy into the BJP propaganda that the minority community coalesces around a party, ignoring past empirical evidence to the contrary, because of its attempt to protect and preserve its religious identity.

Ironically, the fact that the upper castes vote the BJP overwhelmingly is viewed as secular. It is this media narrative which creates communal polarisation in?India, much to the BJP’s advantage.

Ajaz Ashraf

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