Why PM Modi Should Listen to these Dissenting Voices from Varanasi

Anant Zanane reports from Varanasi, bringing us voices of dissent against the BJP, who earlier supported the party.

Updated
Elections
9 min read
Vinay Shadeja used to be a BJP supporter. Disillusioned, he has joined the Congress. Image used for 
i

In 2014, a phenomenal political performance by the then candidate Narendra Modi clinched Varanasi as his ‘karmabhoomi’. Expectations soared to unimaginable heights as to how he would transform Kashi to Kyoto.

Since then, PM Modi has tried to deliver, by flooding the 2,500-year-old sacred city with projects worth thousands of crores. Almost every government department did their bit for the prime minister’s constituency. Most admit that the push to clean Kashi and make it a smart city, was also unprecedented.

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But as Varanasi folks take stock of Modi ji’s performance, there are strong voices of dissent surfacing from within the ancient city. These are voices that offer a rare glimpse into the minds of those who believed in the idea of ‘Modi’s India’. It raises obvious questions as to whether there is growing dissatisfaction with the BJP even in supposedly safe seats like Varanasi, and whether this sentiment will shape voting behaviour.

‘Jobs? What Jobs?’

“I hate Modi!” is 26-year-old *Rupam’s (name changed to protect identity) scathing three-word comment on the PM. Rupam belongs to the backward Rajbhar community in Varanasi’s rural area of Rohaniya. Rajbhars form a sizeable part of the non-Yadav OBC community in Uttar Pradesh, who voted in large numbers for the BJP in the 2014 and 2017 elections.

But their disenchantment could lead to disengagement with the BJP and PM Modi. Rupam critiques the government’s flagship rural schemes: “In the gas connection we got (under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana), there’s hardly any benefit for women. My mother says she likes Modi ji, but ask her and she will tell you how she struggles to save money for a cylinder that costs Rs 735. So, won’t any poor person think twice before saving up for a cylinder?”

An aspiring nurse, Rupam pokes holes in PM Modi’s insurance scheme for the poor: “The Ayushman Bharat Yojana only covers hospitalisation costs. What about daily medicines? Nobody gets admitted so frequently in the hospital!”

The eldest of five sisters, Rupam did her graduation at the Banaras Hindu University. Her father struggles to raise 5 daughters and pay for their education. Mention jobs, and it instantly upsets Rupam. “Jobs?! Ever since Modi ji has come to power, I haven’t even received my scholarship for BSc,” she responds angrily.

Rupam says she’ll be taking exams to become a contractual government nurse. “If you are well off, you can bribe and buy a seat. My father has very little land, which he will need to educate all five of us and get us married too.”

“Has Modi ji done anything to get us free education?”
*Rupam, an aspiring nurse

From Modi Bhakt to Congress Corporator

37-year-old Vinay Kumar Shadeja says his family members have been Jana Sanghis for three generations. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was the former political avatar of the BJP.

“We used to vote for the party’s lamp symbol as we identified with their Hindutva agenda”. Shadeja remembers how he campaigned in 2014 for candidate Modi, because he truly believed that there would be badlaav (positive change), and was aakroshit (agitated) about the 10-year-long UPA ‘misrule’.

Vinay Kumar Shadeja (L) poses with a Modi poster in 2014, when he actively campaigned for the BJP in Varanasi. 
Vinay Kumar Shadeja (L) poses with a Modi poster in 2014, when he actively campaigned for the BJP in Varanasi. 
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

Five years hence, Shadeja is now a Congress Corporator from Varanasi’s ward number 38. Shadeja looks back at this change of heart:

“Modi ji couldn’t measure up to the levels of confidence he inspired in us. (confidence par khare nahee utar paye). We just couldn’t understand what new kind of Hindutva will he awaken now.”
Vinay Kumar Shadeja, BJP supporter-turned-Congress Corporator
Vinay Kumar Shadeja’s poster for his candidature as a Congress Corporator from Varanasi, after he switched sides from the BJP to the Congress  
Vinay Kumar Shadeja’s poster for his candidature as a Congress Corporator from Varanasi, after he switched sides from the BJP to the Congress  
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

About the BJP’s longstanding commitment to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, he says: “Now they say the Supreme Court will decide on the temple. Why? I slowly realised (what was going on), which is why I drifted away from the BJP.”

In the joint Modi-Yogi rule in UP of nearly two years, Varanasi has undergone a face-lift. Swanky flyovers, Victorian lights, the cobweb of wires in the sky has now ‘gone underground’, the city’s walls showcase local art and culture, and the ghats and other government buildings are colourfully lit.

Shadeja calls this ‘cosmetic surgery’. “Earlier they used to crib that we can’t even get the sewers cleaned because we are not in power. But has that happened today? Go to the gullies (narrow alleys) and see the condition there. All he’s done is installed street lights and illuminated a tall TV tower. We admit that roads are better now that the street lights are on. But that’s about it.”

But do local issues really matter in a national election being fought in the charged atmosphere of post-Pulwama nationalism? Shadeja says yes, and explains:

“A human being needs food, money, right? I am also a businessman. I had men working for me. Where are they now? They work as labourers. Labourers used to be expensive hires. Now you get them very cheap.”
Vinay Kumar Shadeja, BJP supporter-turned-Congress Corporator

The ‘Zariwalas’ of Varanasi

“My father, Shri Jhingan Sahu, was at the forefront of establishing the Hindu Mahasabha in Varanasi. In 1948, he was arrested after the assassination of Gandhi due to his Mahasabha link. I was born barely 2 months before Gandhi ji’s assassination. Later, my father became a two-time MLA of Bharatiya Jana Sangh.”
Shyam Sundar Jaiswal shares the background of his inherited political legacy & 200-year-old family business of zari-making with The Quint
Shyam Sundar Jaiswal operating his machine that coats the silver thread with gold 
Shyam Sundar Jaiswal operating his machine that coats the silver thread with gold 
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

The Jana Sangh was repackaged as the BJP, a party with “a difference”. “In 2014, we all felt that a devpurush (Godly man) had descended upon us. That’s what inspired us to work for Modi. Today, we are a little upset.”

But five years hence, Jaiswal thinks there is disorder. Jaiswal feels that PM Modi’s overall tenure has been very good, but he doesn’t support demonetisation. “Modi implemented it without any preparation. His intent may have been good, but when all economists of the country were against demonetisation, he did not listen... People faced immense hardships; especially artisans and craftsmen. Some people in this trade had to abandon it. Their businesses collapsed.”

Jaiswal marvels at the confusing narrative on demonetisation and says, “If a mistake has happened, admitting it would have made PM Modi a taller leader...”

Shyam Sundar Jaiswal says he is an old Jana Sanghi who questions PM Modi’s governance today.
Shyam Sundar Jaiswal says he is an old Jana Sanghi who questions PM Modi’s governance today.
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

On GST: ‘Will A Minor Artisan Do His Work Or Do Hisaab?’

Jaiswal’s exquisite zari, a gold-coated silver thread, is a key input in Varanasi’s world renowned multi-crore weaving industry. A trade facilitation centre is PM Modi’s gift to the lakhs of Varanasi’s weavers. Jaiswal says it’s an investment with good intent, but, “shops aren’t opening. The ones that are open are barely doing any business, and there are no takers for empty shops. It’s actually too far from where weavers operate.”

Jaiswal feels that GST was a western import from economies that do not have a dominant unorganised handloom and handicraft industry. “They brought those tax laws to India upon an unorganised industry, that employs crores of people,” he argues.

Taxes on the handloom sector were nonexistent in the pre-GST era. A five percent tax was imposed on textiles. “Will a small artisan do his work or do hisaab (accounts)? Our working hours are very long, so how do you carve out time for GST bookkeeping and online filing? Even if we want to, we can’t.”

“Just impose income tax and ask them about their turnover,” is Jaiswal’s advise to PM Modi on this.

Despite the disruption in people’s daily lives, will they still vote for PM Modi? Jaiswal believes, “People are upset but they have no other choice. Yeh majboori hai. (It’s helplessness)”

Business – Not As Usual – in Varanasi

“I represent the small-and-medium trader community that had high hopes of relief and revival from PM Modi,” says 61-year-old Prem Mishra, who heads Varanasi’s Mahanagar Udyog Vyapar Samiti. The 20-year-old umbrella trade body has 60 associations, spanning across various businesses in Varanasi. Traders are the traditional support base of the BJP that has relied on them as a trustworthy urban vote-bank, and a source of campaign financing.

Prem Mishra, businessman and president of Varanasi, ‘Udyog Vyapar Samiti’ feels that there is more that meets the eye about Nitin Gadkari, and his recent remarks on him not being in the race for Prime Minister. 
Prem Mishra, businessman and president of Varanasi, ‘Udyog Vyapar Samiti’ feels that there is more that meets the eye about Nitin Gadkari, and his recent remarks on him not being in the race for Prime Minister. 
(Photo: Anant Zanane)
“In Varanasi, the focus has been to develop it like Gujarat. This is the PM’s constituency. All departments of the government have made their contribution to the PM’s seat which brought development. But it hasn’t even spilled over to the neighbouring districts of Mirzapur, Chandauli or Jaunpur.”
Prem Mishra, Head of Varanasi’s Mahanagar Udyog Vyapar Samiti

Pointing out familiar flaws with GST and how rates are being revised after recent electoral losses, Mishra says, “after losing elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, they now want to reduce rates”.

He also questions, “Why did CM Adityanath lose his seat in the Gorakhpur by-election? Why did Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya lose his seat in the Phoolpur by-poll? Why is Nitin Gadkari repeatedly telling the media that neither he nor the RSS want him to be PM?”

Curious about these developments, he further adds, “There must be something behind all this? My understanding is that the BJP government may not come back with an absolute majority. If they don’t get a majority, then the alliance may not accept Modi as PM.”

Having said all of this, Mishra finally claims that he remains Modi’s well-wisher. “Modi’s personal image is very good. It’s because of his image that the BJP is well established today. To keep that intact, he needs to re-prioritise his commitment against corruption, inflation and ensure good governance.”

‘Personally, I’m a Big Supporter of Modi ji, But…’

66-year-old Shrinarayan Khemka, a prominent ready-made garments businessman from Varanasi, has met the PM three times. His last meeting was at a dinner hosted by the government for Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Varanasi. Khemka admires PM Modi. “Personally speaking, I am a big supporter of Modi ji... His ideology is very good and if it is implemented properly then the country will benefit from it.”

But when it comes to PM Modi’s administrative actions, Khemka hints at a growing disturbing distrust in government data.

“Anyone who says that businesses didn’t crash after demonetisation, is wrong. I am a supporter of this government, but I can say that I don’t trust their figures. The figures supplied were wrong. And we know how they can be manipulated.”
Shrinarayan Khemka, A Prominent Ready-Made Garments Businessman 
Shrinarayan Khemka, a garments trader in Varanasi, feels that the Modi government can’t be trusted for its economic and jobs data.
Shrinarayan Khemka, a garments trader in Varanasi, feels that the Modi government can’t be trusted for its economic and jobs data.
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

Khemka further says, “...There is a saying – if someone repeats a lie a 100 times, it becomes the truth... Perhaps for the first time in India, we are witnessing an enormous industry of propaganda and praise for the government. But now I feel this excess publicity is beginning to boomerang. Even genuine praise for the government is no longer taken seriously, and people dismiss it by saying ‘they have a habit of making tall claims.’”

On the lack of industry investment in Varanasi, Khemka says, “It’s not necessary that industrial investment will create more jobs. Every district of UP is known for some traditional small scale industry. If you promote them, thousands of hands will get jobs.”

With regard to corruption, Khemka counters the claim that honest people are happy today, while the dishonest are troubled. Khemka says,“Those who were earlier honest are still troubled. And you can’t claim that dishonest people have vanished. It’s still easy to find out ways of evading tax...”

What About Real Estate?

55-year-old Anuj Didwania is the president of the Varanasi Builders Association, an umbrella body that has the membership of 27 real estate companies of the city. Didwani claims that the real estate sector in Varanasi was relatively immune to the damage inflicted by demonetisation, because after all, the city is the prime minister’s constituency. Business hasn’t recovered or grown. Rather, it’s remained “standstill”.

Anuj Didwania, President, Varanasi Builders Association says he likes PM Modi, but the real estate sector has suffered under his PM-ship.
Anuj Didwania, President, Varanasi Builders Association says he likes PM Modi, but the real estate sector has suffered under his PM-ship.
(Photo: Anant Zanane)

He calls himself “BJP minded”, but also questions demonetisation. “People said that 11 lakh crore of black money will be accounted for. Nothing happened...”

According to him, GST wasn’t rolled out properly either, which is why he says, “...It (GST) was hurriedly done. I’m just being frank.”

(Anant Zanane is an Uttar Pradesh-based journalist who was with NDTV for over a decade. He tweets at @anantzanane. )

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