Caste and ‘the Muslim Vote’ in the Battle for India’s Varanasi

June 4
Supporters at a rally for BJP candidate Narendra Modi in Rohania, on the outskirts of Varanasi, India, May 8, 2014 (Photo courtesy Jolie Wood)
Supporters at a rally for BJP candidate Narendra Modi in Rohania, on the outskirts of Varanasi, India, May 8, 2014. (Photo courtesy Jolie Wood)

In the ninth and final phase of India’s five-week-long election, the district of Varanasi hosted what the Indian media sensationally billed as “the mother of all battles,” between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime minister designate, Narendra Modi, the idiosyncratic anti-corruption activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, Indian National Congress candidate Ajay Rai, and a host of other candidates. Even as an outsider—being the chief minister of the distant state of Gujarat—Modi’s victory seemed to many a foregone conclusion. Hindus have long revered Varanasi as a holy city and it retains an aura of traditionalism. The city is also home to large populations of certain castes or jatis from which the BJP has historically drawn strong support. Therefore, this parliament seat seemed to many a “perfect” fit for the Hindu nationalist candidate.

However, there were also good reasons to doubt Modi’s easy victory. While the city itself is viewed as a BJP stronghold, the party’s strength here is occasionally exaggerated. In the district more widely, there has also been strong support for parties representing lower-caste aspirations, like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Then there is the issue of Varanasi’s large Muslim community, constituting about 15 percent of the district population (Modi is widely perceived as harboring anti-Muslim sentiment, having failed to halt vicious anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 that resulted in the death of over 1,000 people and not showing any particular remorse about it). Furthermore, the incumbent member of parliament, Murli Manohar Joshi, was a high-ranking BJP leader who in 2009 had only narrowly defeated a Muslim candidate, the notorious mafioso Mukhtar Ansari, with just over 17,000 votes. Joshi was now widely regarded as having been an absentee MP who had done little for the district since then. And while this has always been a city of trade, and business communities in North India are expected to support the BJP, Varanasi’s businessmen hold diverse and competing political loyalties, backing rival traders’ associations with connections to different parties and frequently using protest to raise their competing associations’ profiles.

Indian National Congress candidate Ajay Rai campaigns with Rahul Gandhi in Lanka, Varanasi, May 10, 2014 (Photo courtesy Jolie Wood)
Indian National Congress candidate Ajay Rai campaigns with Rahul Gandhi in Lanka, Varanasi, May 10, 2014 (Photo courtesy Jolie Wood)

Finally, in the last days of the campaign, Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had succeeded in generating such a significant buzzthroughout the city that some observers wondered whether Kejriwal might manage a surprise victory over Modi.  Idealistic young AAP workers from across India flooded the district, conducting extensive door-to-door campaigns. Party spokesman Yogendra Yadav—political scientist and himself a candidate in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon—spent six days campaigning in the city. The AAP “roadshow” or campaign parade just two days before the election filled the streets with enthusiastic supporters and blocked traffic for hours.

The question of how the “Muslim vote” would affect the election loomed large. For the journalists streaming into the city, visits to Muslim localities were almost obligatory. What did the handloom weavers of Pilikothi and the sari merchants of Madanpura think of the “Modi Wave”? How would their neighborhoods vote? While researching during the election campaign this May, I was welcomed at teashops with the kind of good-humored tolerance that suggested that I and my questions were entirely expected — just one outsider among many who came in recognition of the community’s potentially formidable voting power.

However, as usual, and in contradiction to conventional wisdom, the community was not entirely unified behind one candidate. Most voters had not yet made up their minds, but there was widespread distrust of Modi and considerable support for Kejriwal, seen as a principled and honest man. Ajay Rai was a local politician with a deep network of support and a mixed reputation for being, on one hand, a gangster with an extensive criminal record, and on the other, a man who was always willing to help out a person in need. According to these teashop patrons, voters in these neighborhoods would make their decision a day or two before the election, choosing the non-Modi candidate who appeared to have the most support among Hindus.

However, whether the people of the Muslim communities would or could vote as a “bloc,” even in opposition to Modi, was uncertain. In the 2009 general election, the predominantly-Ansari Muslim community was unusually unified behind Mukhtar Ansari. Normally, however, the “Muslim vote” is fractured. In the 2012 state assembly election, Madhavi Devasher estimated that only 54 percent of Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh supported the Samajwadi Party and 20 percent supported the Bahujan Samaj Party. In the 2007 state assembly election, according to this author’s casual observation, Muslims in Varanasi tended to support the Samajwadi Party, the Congress, or the Bahujan Samaj Party. On this election day, interviewees in Muslim localities reported that a majority of the community had voted for Kejriwal, managing a more unified opposition to Modi and perhaps reacting to what some have seen as a revival of religious “communalism” in this election.

While the Muslim community of the city attracted plenty of attention, another community was mostly ignored. The Mallahs, traditionally a boating and fishing caste, number about 50,000 in the city and many more in the district as a whole. Like the Muslim Ansaris, the Hindu Mallahs also challenge the conventional wisdom that elections in this part of India are chiefly about caste and religious identity. They are a fractious community that has not been able either to vote as a cohesive bloc or form a durable patron-client relationship with any party or politician. In a way this has been advantageous, as it has forced them to organize and mobilize themselves, forming a variety of associations and committees that might be considered exemplary of “modern” citizenship (for those who continue to pursue the traditional occupations of boating and fishing, efforts to protect the Ganges have represented a serious challenge to their livelihood). On the other hand, with no reliable patron and an inability to marshal a unified “vote bank,” they have a keen sense of being ignored at election time. In the end, most boatmen appeared to support Modi (trusting that his pledge to clean the Ganges would not further marginalize them), but there was a visible split with those who pledged to choose the new “NOTA” (none of the above) option or the Samajwadi Party candidate Kailash Chaurasia.

One of the most frequently discussed characteristics of politics in Uttar Pradesh is that it revolves around caste and religious community.  However, as both the cases of the Ansaris and Mallahs suggest, these factors can be overstated. Even in past, more “normal” elections, these communities have not voted as blocs, even when it would clearly be in their group interest to do so. In this election, with the exception of the majority of Varanasi’s Muslims, voters from diverse caste and class backgrounds chose a presidential-style candidate who appeared to represent development, infrastructural improvement, and modernity both in Varanasi and nationwide. While economists have questioned whether Modi’s economic policies as chief minister of Gujarat actually accelerated economic growth and explored why high growth has not resulted in higher social development indicators, his promise to apply the “Gujarat Model” of economic development was enormously appealing to many. Many voters said that it was time for a “change” in Varanasi, citing the city’s decaying infrastructure, including power outages that routinely stretched to eight hours or more, serious waste management issues, and narrow, traffic-choked roads. Therefore, even in the highest-profile election in the country, local issues continued to drive many voters’ choices.

Jolie M. F. Wood is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Allegheny College. She has conducted extensive field research in Varanasi.

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