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ground zero
Desh vs pradesh: Why the Modi narrative works
Raj Chengappa

The ancient city of Varanasi — so called because it is situated between three rivers, the Ganga and its tributaries Varuna and Asi — is considered the spiritual capital of India. But in the final days of the campaign for the 2014 General Election it also became the country’s political capital. As the mammoth exercise drew to a successful close it was literally ground zero for India’s key combatants.

The city turned into a river of saffron when Narendra Modi descended in his whirly bird two days before campaigning ended, whipping up a tsunami of support. Varanasi is the second seat Modi is contesting apart from Vadodara.

UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav during an SP road show in Varanasi on Saturday.
UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav during an SP road show in Varanasi on Saturday. PTI

The next day, the streets went a penitent white as Arvind Kejriwal and his hordes swept the city with their ‘safed’ flags emblazoned with the ‘jhadu’ symbol. Kejriwal, who is Modi’s main rival for the seat, showed that the Aam Aadmi Party and not the Congress had become a power to reckon with in this constituency.

Yesterday, the final day of campaigning, Rahul Gandhi, braving the blazing sun and risking his life, rolled through the narrow roads of the city atop an SUV, creating his own tri-colour wave for Congress candidate Ajay Rai. Rahul began his road show at Benia Bagh, the Muslim stronghold of the city and home of shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. (Incidentally, the Election Commission had controversially turned down a request from Modi to hold a rally at Benia Bagh the previous day). Rahul ended his show symbolically at Lanka, named after the mythical place where Lord Ram slew Ravana for abducting Sita.

Finally before the clock struck five, bringing the curtains down on campaigning across the country, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, showed who really was the strongman of the state, by doing his own form of Rath Yatra complete with a band (curiously called Punjab da Band) belting out a Hindified version of ‘We didn’t start the fire’ that had lyrics in praise of Mulayam and his scion and his supporters waving the green and red party flag. Akhilesh’s rally ended at the politically strategic Godowlia Chowk, the confluence of Hindu and Muslim populations apart from having one of the oldest churches situated near it.

For those of us who had the privilege to witness this dazzling display of colour, sound and light it was Indian democracy at its raucous best. Supporters of various parties drove in cars or rode motorcycles bearing flags and campaigned for their candidates peacefully. The road shows, despite the congested streets, were conducted with a spirit of tolerance and good humour. At the Congress show, a BJP supporter raced through the streets shouting slogans in favour of Modi, but the crowd just tittered and let him pass unharmed. It renewed ones faith in our great country and in the freedom we all truly enjoy.

Yet the elections had a dark side, with political rhetoric sinking to an all-time low with even top leaders taking cheap-shots and indulging in mud-slinging. In the final month of the campaign, the gloves came off with key parties, especially the BJP, attempting to polarise the vote along communal lines, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi was no different with Modi evoking Ganga Ma and blaming the EC for not allowing him to perform ‘aarti’ on the river bank. Kejriwal promptly performed the ritual with his wife the same day and twitted Modi for his act.

Yet while political megaphones competed with mandir bells and chants, in this temple city the dilemma faced by the electorate was no different than what every Indian voter was confronted with. On the streets of Varanasi, the debate was, as one of its residents put it, between “desh and pradesh”, or nation versus state.

Modi’s argument that national interest comes first in a Lok Sabha election and that he should be given a chance to deliver, had traction especially because he promised good governance and a strong government in contrast to a wilting UPA. The BJP also did resort to polarising votes (Arun Jaitley prefers to call it consolidating Hindu votes) in a bid to capture maximum seats in India’s politically most important state that has 80 seats.

In the past month or so, Rahul Gandhi seemed to have made up for lost ground by his constructive argument of the Congress providing an inclusive, caring government that empowers people in contrast to an exclusionist, divisive and dictatorial rule that he claimed Modi represented. In Varanasi, as in Punjab, Kejriwal drew support with his promise to clean up politics but many opined that he had not matured enough to handle the country’s issues.

With the final phase of voting getting over tomorrow, there is barely a week to wait for the outcome of the globe’s largest democratically held election. The nation and the world wait with baited breath.

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