Why Modi may have a fight on his hands in Varanasi

It seems clear that Uttar Pradesh (UP) with its 80 Lok Sabha seats is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) biggest bet in this election and that Narendra Modi is standing from Varanasi in order to boost the BJP’s prospects across eastern UP.

The BJP’s man in UP Amit Shah certainly seems gung-ho:

With a couple of exceptions, many people are assuming that Modi will easily win in Varanasi even if Arvind Kejriwal joins the contest. For instance CNN-IBN’s Sagarika Ghose tweeted this yesterday from Varanasi:

But don’t take anything for granted, as the following analysis by two political scientists suggests. Modi will probably still pull off a win in the face of adverse local politics, but he may have a fight on his hands.

Guest post by Philip K. Oldenburg, Research Scholar, South Asia Institute, Columbia University

The implications of the choice of the BJP to field Narendra Modi in the Varanasi constituency need to be explored a bit more.  It is not simply that the BJP has to do very well in UP, and that Modi contesting in the state gives them a much better chance (which I would agree with), and that this is a signal that Hindutva will remain central to the BJP (possibly true). 

It is not at all clear that Modi would win the seat, and certainly will have to expend a good deal of effort if he wants to have a chance.  In 2009, the party-wise vote shares were: BJP (30.5%), Bahujan Samaj Party (27.9%), Samajwadi Party (18.6%) and Indian National Congress (10.0%). Jolie Wood, who teaches political science at Allegheny College, writes (on 19 Mar):

As someone who has spent some time doing fieldwork in Varanasi and has met many major local political figures there, I agree . . . that it is not at all clear that Modi will win in Varanasi.

The city is often viewed as a “BJP stronghold”, but it is not exactly that. First, Muslims make up about 27% of the city population and at least 30% of the district’s population (according to the admittedly outdated 2001 census). Joshi won his seat with just over 17,000 votes over a Muslim candidate who was not previously very prominent and is widely seen as a mafioso. The business community, probably the best organized occupational group in the city, is not entirely pro-BJP – the SP also has a very strong organisation among them. Many in the business community (including those loyal to the BJP) are quite wary of anyone who might inflame communal sentiment and in fact discouraged more right-wing elements of the BJP from pushing the Gyanvapi Masjid/Kashi Vishwanath Mandir issue because it was bad for business.

If we look at other reasons why the city is seen as a BJP stronghold, we can also see some reason for doubt. Take, for example, the current Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs). The MLA of Varanasi South is Shyamdeo Rai Chaudhary, who has held that seat for something like 6 or 7 terms now. He is personally popular and is seen as someone who is decent, trustworthy, non-corrupt, and (importantly) not super partisan or “communal”. Jyotsana Srivastava is not a major political player by herself – she alternates terms (more or less) with her very popular, much higher profile, husband Harishchandra Srivastava. These MLAs win consistently on the basis of their personal stature, as much as or more than on the basis of their party identification. Finally, the MLA from Varanasi North, Ravindra Jaiswal, is a business leader who is a first-time MLA, and who holds a seat in a district that has usually gone for Muslim candidates linked to the Ansari community, which is particularly strong in that constituency. I would not assume that he or any BJP candidate can easily hold onto that seat.

So, my point is that the BJP’s current dominance of Varanasi’s elected offices is not necessarily due to the strength of the BJP per se. Add to this that the very large Muslim community tend to support SP, Congress, or BSP. Congress has done very poorly in the city for the last several elections. The SP and BSP have much stronger organizations in Varanasi than does Congress, so I’m not sure why some discount their role in the coming election, though it is true that they’ve never fielded a strong candidate for the MP seat.

The big question for me is how they will approach this election. If they form an alliance with AAP, it could weaken the BJP considerably. [But] I really wonder if AAP could coordinate any kind of agreement with BSP and SP. And while Mukhtar Ansari may have won a lot of votes in 2009, I actually don’t know if the BSP is that much stronger in Varanasi than it was in 2007, when it had no presence at all, even when Mayawati won an outright majority in the state. I do know that Congress had become a total non-player by then.

I do think that if Muslim voters backed AAP in a more or less unified way, then Kejriwal might have a chance, but if BSP fields Mukhtar Ansari again, that probably won’t happen. (Also, many Shia Muslims in Varanasi support BJP.)

Jolie’s analysis seems sound to me, and it raises an important question: If this is a seat for which Modi must fight, and if fighting for it means spending significant time in Varanasi that he might otherwise have spent travelling throughout the country, then perhaps this choice of seat might weaken the BJP’s campaign.

And if it so happen that Modi loses – and here the importance of Jolie’s point that in effect “communalism can be bad for business” is particularly important. If Modi tones down his Hindutva rhetoric, then what happens in those parts of UP where that would draw votes and, more important, a hyperactive “base” of political workers? And if the BJP and its pre-election allies and supporters fall short of a majority, then having an alternate BJP prime minister becomes a serious possibility.

5 thoughts on “Why Modi may have a fight on his hands in Varanasi

  1. If I may, I’ve noticed that I made a typo in my original statement. MM Joshi won the MP seat with just over 17,000 votes over Mukhtar Ansari, not 12,000. Thanks!

  2. I had similar thoughts about the election, also many times Varanasi election had left parties which were runner up in assembly elections. So if the votes dont divide then AK has a great chance.

  3. Thayoli

    It is quite annoying for an American to undertaken election analysis based on superficial facts. Why can’t they confine themselves to Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.,?

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