Muslims in Varanasi Consolidate Behind the SP-Congress Alliance and Seek to Prevent Scattering of Votes

The failure of the BJP to fulfill electoral promises in Varanasi, coupled with demonetisation and its communal rhetoric, have led to the city's Muslim voters consolidating behind the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
05 March, 2017

On 4 March 2017, Varanasi hosted the political heavyweights in the Uttar Pradesh election—Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, all campaigned in the city on the same day. Besides the prime minister, a flurry of union ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party was present in the city. Home Minister Rajnath Singh reportedly told the media on his way to Varanasi, “Purvanchal UP mein BJP ki hawa nahi, aandhi chal rahi hai,”—In eastern UP, it is not the winds, but a storm brewing in the BJP’s favour. Not everyone in Varanasi agrees with Singh. “Work hasn't been done in Varanasi in the last three years. The centre hasn’t done anything,” Aftab Ahmad, an assistant professor in the Banaras Hindu University’s Urdu department, said. “The BJP has released its full force here. If you’ve done work then why do you have to expend so much effort?”

Varanasi, the constituency from which Modi won the Lok Sabha ticket in 2014, consists of five assembly seats, and goes to polls on 8 March, in the seventh and final phase of the state election. Muslims constitute approximately 20 percent of UP’s population, 15 percent of Varanasi district’s population and 29 percent of Varanasi city’s population. In the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) respectively won an absolute majority in the state, with approximately 30 percent of the votes. Muslims, then, clearly wield a significant influence on the electoral outcomes of the city and the state.

Over the past few days, as the campaigning in Varanasi ramped up, I spoke to over 60 Muslim residents of the city. Most had a far from favourable view of the prime minister and his party on the issue of demonetisation—and indeed on much else.

At Kashi Vidyapith, a public university in Maldahiya, I met separately with two groups of around fifteen students each, all of whom were Muslim, and were members of the university’s Urdu department. Each time, we sat in the department’s library. Most criticised the prime minister and his party, though several students appreciated the work of the BJP’s sitting MLA from the Varanasi South constituency, Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari, who has held the seat for seven consecutive terms. Mohammed Nizammudin, a professor in the department, who was present during both interactions, said that Chaudhari “didn’t win because of Hindus alone.” He added, “He helped everyone.” Chaudhari has not been granted a ticket this time.

Many students brought up and criticised demonetisation. Obaid Zeyai, who lives in Jaitpura, said that he had to go all the way to Mughal Sarai, 14 kilometres away, to exchange his old notes. Another student, who requested to remain anonymous, mentioned that someone she knew committed suicide following financial issues that resulted from demonetisation.

The loudest collective agreement during the conversation in the library came when Nizamuddin said that all that Modi had done was to have “travelled abroad and enjoyed himself.” Shouts of “Haan!” and “Yes!” broke out among the students. Echoing the sentiments of several other Muslim residents I met in the city, Shamima Parveen, one of the students, said, “Will he just give salaami to Ganga for these three days and go away, and not do anything about the cleaning?” referring to Modi’s ongoing three-day visit to Varanasi and his 2014 campaign promise to clean up the Ganga. Several other students, too, expressed their disappointment with Modi’s failure to deliver on the promise. (Political leaders criticised Modi for this as well. During her election rally, Mayawati reportedly said, “They haven’t yet cleaned Mother Ganga. Along with you people, this time Mother Ganga will punish them too.”)

None of the Muslim residents I spoke to said that they would vote for the BJP. But according to some, such as Salman Raghib, who runs a computer centre called the Varanasi Education Center, a part of the city’s Shia population—a fraction of the city’s Muslim population as a whole—would likely vote BJP. “Traditionally, Shia were always with the BJP. They were always in minority here [relative to Sunnis]. So there was insecurity,” Raghib said. A large number of Shia Muslims had voted for the BJP in the 2014 general elections.

A further point of consensus that seemed to emerge was support for the Samajwadi Party, and specifically for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. “I want a CM like Akhilesh,” said a middle-aged leather and metal-ware shopkeeper in the city’s Bari Bazar area. “Our slogan is ‘Akhilesh once again.’ He’s given books, laptops. He’s given laptops to children who didn’t have money for even a phone.” Among his reasons for supporting the chief minister, he also listed the Agra-Lucknow expressway and the Lucknow Metro. Similarly invoking laptops, and the chief minister’s position as a young leader, Tahreem Fatima, one of the students I spoke with at Kashi Vidyapith, said that voters had brought everyone to power but that “only Akhilesh has given benefit.” Few people I spoke to brought up the Congress, except in discussions regarding the party’s alliance with the SP.

On the question of support for Mayawati and the BSP, which has fielded a historic 97 Muslim candidates, most people I met were ambivalent. Irshad Ahmed Ansari, a daily-wage labourer in the Fatman Road area of the city, told me that “one error was making the haathi statues”elephant statues, which Mayawati had constructed throughout Lucknow during her reign as chief minister, and for which she has been widely criticised. Various others seemed sceptical about Mayawati, and with the composition of her candidate list. Most people said, however, that maintenance of law and order in the state had been considerably superior under BSP. Another daily-wage labourer I met in Fatman Road said that under the present government, the police constantly harassed and beat him, but that this did not occur during Mayawati’s rule. Zeyai, the student at Kashi Vidyapith, said that Mayawati would regularly clamp down on violent students unions of Varanasi.

But nearly every Muslim resident I met with decidedly preferred the BSP to the BJP. “Muslims will vote based on who can stop BJP,” said Jahangir Alam, a retired advocate who lives in Orderly Bazar. According to Alam, the SP-Congress alliance was better positioned than the BSP to defeat the BJP. He would be voting for the alliance, he said. Fearing the scattering of Muslim votes, most of the Muslim residents of Varanasi I spoke to also said that they would not vote for the smaller parties, including the Peace Party of India, the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, and the Ittehad-e-Millat Council. Ahmad, the assistant professor in Banaras Hindu University, said, “These parties make polarisation very easy.”

People I met appeared troubled by the BJP’s communal rhetoric, but had become inured to it. What seemed important to them was that the electorate should not become communally charged and that Muslims’ votes should not get scattered, as those scenarios typically benefit the BJP. “BJP likes to polarise things on polling day. At 10am and 11am they declare that Muslims are voting en bloc for this party or that party,” said Alam. The shopkeeper in Bari Bazar offered a different criticism of the BJP. Invoking Modi’s plan to bring elements of the Japanese city Kyoto to Varanasi as part of the Kashi-Kyoto pact, he said, “If you want to see Kyoto, go see Akhilesh’s Lucknow.”