Modi’s Volunteers Flood Varanasi

If the number of volunteers working for an election campaign is any measure of likely success, Narendra Modi is romping home today to a tumultuous victory in the Hindus’ sacred city of Varanasi, where voting is taking place amid tight security at the end of five weeks of polling across the country in India’s general election.

Currently the chief minister of Gujarat, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice for prime ministerial, Modi is standing to become the BJP’s MP in Varanasi.

His large campaign headquarters was full when I went there on Saturday with literally hundreds of volunteers from all parts of India. Their aim was to make sure that Modi wins this symbolically significant constituency in the politically crucial state of `Uttar Pradesh when the election results are declared on Friday.

Earlier in the day I watched Rahul Gandhi being cheered and mobbed by huge crowds of supporters when he drove through the streets. His road show was suddenly arranged as a response to Modi breaking with convention and campaigning in Gandhi’s constituency of Amethi. Usually party leaders do not stage rallies on their rivals’ home turf, but Modi is out to break conventions.

If Modi wins Varanasi, Gandhi hopes to come second before two other strong rivals. The most prominent is Arvind Kejriwal, founder and leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (common man) party (AAP), and the other is the local candidate of the regional Samajwadi Party that packs punch because it is in power in the state.

It is the sheer scale of the Modi operation that is remarkable. The party’s headquarters are spread over several floors of a 14-story block of flats owned by a businessman supporter. The volunteers came from many parts of India as well as the US and elsewhere abroad, all convinced that Modi is the politician to make India perform better.

Praveen Thakur, a restaurant manager in his 30s from the Delhi area, had taken time off work to help the Modi campaign in four other constituencies before coming to Varanasi. He was a supporter because, he said, Modi had made the streets of Gujarat safe for women at night and because of work he had organized to improve river waters and generate solar energy.

Suresh Kochattil, who manages a charitable foundation in the southern city of Hyderabad, said Modi knows what the country needs in terms of getting things done.

Suresh ran the BJP’s social media programme in Hyderabad and was helping the team in Varanasi, having paid his air fare (inflated because ticket prices rocketed up as Modi supporters flooded into the city). Govind Dharma, an elderly university lecturer from Rajasthan simply said, “Modi knows how to improve India.”

All three men – and three young architects I met elsewhere during the day – show how India’s growing middle class is clamoring for efficient, responsible government, strong economic growth, and better infrastructure, which the Gandhi family’s outgoing Congress-led government has failed to provide.

Modi does not have to become the Varanasi MP in order be prime minister because, under a quirk of India’s election system, he is also standing in his traditional political home of Gujarat.

Varanasi however is symbolic as the spiritual heart of Hinduism on the banks of the sacred Ganga River. The devout come here, as I saw soon after dawn yesterday morning, to cremate their dead on the ghats, or to bring ashes from elsewhere to scatter on the river.

This is therefore seen as a spiritual city of death and rebirth. That has led people to ask whether Modi does not just want to be the MP for such an important Hindu place, but also wants his election to symbolize the rebirth of pragmatic India as a economically successful Hindu nationalist country.

Frog or savior?

Maybe he also seeks the rebirth of his own image so that he can shed the shadow of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots at Godhra in Gujarat, for which many people hold him responsible.

But his critics do not see it like that, as Salil Tripathi, a UK based Indian writer, demonstrated in an a recent newspaper article where he quoted the mystical poet Kabir (who uses the alternative name Benares for Varanasi):

His death in Benares Won’t save the assassin From a certain hell Any more than a dip In the Ganges will send Frogs—or you—to paradise.

We will know whether Modi has won the seat on Friday. It will take much longer, if the BJP wins the general election and he becomes prime minister, to discover whether he is the Modi of Godhra destined symbolically to be unsaveable like the Ganges frogs, or the man India needs to lead it into a new era of economic and development.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the lower right corner of this page.