Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht. Photo: AFP/ Sanjay Kanojia

The world’s oldest inhabited city – Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh – which is also the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was flooded with posters on Tuesday.

“PM Modi, quit Varanasi” and “Gujarati and Marathi people leave UP in a week” read the posters, put up by a small outfit called UP-Bihar Ekta Manch in response to the violent attack and exodus of nearly 50,000 north Indian workers from the western state of Gujarat over the last week following the rape of a toddler in Banaskantha district, allegedly by a worker from Bihar.

Such hate campaigns against fellow Indians (or Modi, who hails from Gujarat) were never heard of in Varanasi. The city has been known over the ages for accepting and assimilating people from all nationalities, race, religion or community with open hearts, experts say.

Sunil Vishwakarma, a professor at Benaras Hindu University in Varanasi and former member of the Central Board of Film Certification, said: “Even the serial bomb blasts of 2006 including one at Sankatmochan Temple and the exodus of people from Maharashtra in 2008 following campaigns of Raj Thackeray’s political outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) – that  didn’t create any animosity among locals despite a sizeable Muslim and Maharashtrian population in the city.”

Embarrassed, the BJP called it the handiwork of the opposition Congress. However, social activist Himanshu Singh, said: “It is the result of rising regionalism, communalism and casteism under the Bharatiya Janta Party-led federal and state governments.

The man behind the posters, Vishwambhar Kunwar, denied any political link but sought to justify his move: “People of UP elected a Gujarati leader [Modi] from Varanasi seat but he is silent when people from UP are being attacked in his home state. We migrate because Modi failed to generate enough jobs but he does nothing to ensure the safety of migrants. The BJP government of Gujarat blames Congress legislator Alpesh Thakore for instigating the attack on migrants but hasn’t taken any action against him.”

The current unemployment rate in UP stands at 7.9%, well over the national average of 5%.

“The ‘Locals versus Outsiders’ campaign in Gujarat is a grim reminder of the failure of Modi’s so-called Gujarat Model. The migrants issue also indicates joblessness in UP despite big claims of investment. Most development projects have gone to Gujarat-based firms leaving locals high and dry,” Professor Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, of the Electronics Engineering Department at the Indian Institute of Technology-Benaras Hindu University and Mahant of the popular Sankatmochan Temple, alleged.

The issue could flare up in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when the PM will seek re-election in Varanasi, some analysts say.

Supporters disenchanted

Observers say UP voters who supported the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2017 Assembly polls, are not infatuated with the party anymore, thanks to the dearth of jobs and the economic slump and rising crime rates in the state.

The recent murder of Apple executive Vivek Tiwari in Lucknow by two police followed by a rebellion in the police force (wearing black ribbons, criticism on social media and resignations) against the dismissal of the two accused is also viewed as a setback for the BJP.

“While flawed federal policies such as demonetization and haphazard implementation of Goods and Services Tax ruined the small-medium businesses especially the hand-loom industry of Varanasi, UP, the government’s failure to curb crime and corruption has added to people’s woes,” Roshan Jamil, a leader of weavers, said.

Varanasi is yet to see the development it was promised, Anil Gupta, a local resident, said. The city has gone from bad to worse due to haphazard road work, improper laying of underground cables and cosmetic uplifts ahead of the VIP visits, locals claim.

“Poor waste disposal leads to water contamination and a jump in water-vector borne diseases here. Even children playing Lord Ram and Lakshman in Ram-Leela fell sick discontinuing the centuries-old show for the first time,” Avnindra Singh, the editor of a local paper, said.

This is despite the fact that projects worth millions of dollars have been approved for the PM’s constituency. Modi has blamed the previous government for Varanasi’s plight.

BJP can’t repeat 2014 success

The “world’s largest” political party is on a decline, BJP leaders have allegedly conceded. People in UP showed their displeasure against the party early this year in three key by-elections. Surveys from states facing polls next month have rung alarm bells for the party’s electoral fortunes.

State Congress leader Virendra Madan said: “The tall election promises, such as creating two million jobs in India annually and curbing inflation and crime, now haunts Modi and the BJP’s chief strategists. The situation is grimmer in UP because of an inefficient, arrogant and encounter-loving chief minister Yogi Adityanath.”

Observers speculate that the BJP could lose half of its seats in the 2019 elections and Modi winning with a slim margin. Ramesh Dixit, a political scientist and former professor at Lucknow University, said: “The BJP can’t win more than 20 seats out of 80 in UP irrespective of the opposition’s unity, mainly due to anti-BJP sentiment from a range of issues.” Such a result would have major ramifications for the ruling party and may even prevent it from returning to power.

Professor Mishra and Dixit said: “Even the Varanasi contest could throw surprising results provided the opposition comes up with a good common candidate.”

BJP confident

UP is important for the BJP but, over the years, India’s most populous state has lagged behind others in industrial growth and attracting investment. This is blamed on a range of reasons including lack of infrastructure, a high crime rate and a population of 220 million.

Cashing in on youngsters’ anger and frustration, the BJP made tall promises and bagged 71 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 2014 polls, which contributed to its national victory. UP is crucial for the BJP, accounting for over a one in four seats in the national parliament.

Over 30 drains continue to pour sewage into the Ganges, which is revered as sacred in Hindu mythology. In his election speeches, Modi had claimed to be the river’s mythical son.

Ganga sewage problem

“The city generates 350 million liters of sewage water a day, but only 102m liters is being treated at a treatment plant. And it is now redundant. Another one with the capacity to treat 120m liters will be ready by the end of October. But even then, a third of the sewage will go into the river without treatment. Water quality reports have got worse compared to previous years,” Professor Mishra said. He believed leaders of the Modi government’s Namami Ganga project lack sincerity.

Meanwhile, priests are angry over the razing of centuries-old temples for the Vishwanath temple corridor. Swami Avimukteshwaranand, of Vidya Math, said: “Old temples, houses and narrow bylanes are the identity of Varanasi, the same as its occupants. But they are being evicted forcefully to establish a new Varanasi for the rich. This is happening under the so-called ‘Hindutva’ government.”

Changes to the Prevention of Atrocities against Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribes Act could also play a crucial role, observers say. “There is discontent among the upper castes of Varanasi regarding the Act, which has the potential to affect the BJP’s prospects. However, Modi will manage to win,” says Ambuj Pandey, a writer and professor at a local postgraduate college.

However, Dixit felt otherwise. “Modi is not invincible, as claimed by the BJP. We saw the late prime minister Indira Gandhi lose at the polls in 1977.”

BJP spokesperson Naveen Srivastava said the Gujarat government was doing enough to address the migrant issue. “The PM might not have spoken about the Gujarat incident but things have been sorted by the Gujarat-UP government. This was a conspiracy of the opposition timed to coincide with the migrants’ annual visit home for festivals. Congressman Thakore will be arrested as soon as we will have full-proof evidence against him.”

In regard to unfulfilled promises, Srivastava said: “Although the Modi government came to power in May 2014, the Samajwadi party which ruled UP until March 2017 stalled all infrastructure work proposed by the Center just to defame Modi. Since the BJP has taken over in the state, most development projects in Varanasi have been streamlined.”