On 4 March 2017, Varanasi hosted the political heavyweights in the Uttar Pradesh election—Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, and the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, all campaigned in the city on the same day. Besides the prime minister, a flurry of union ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party was present in the city. Home Minister Rajnath Singh reportedly told the media on his way to Varanasi, “Purvanchal UP mein BJP ki hawa nahi, aandhi chal rahi hai,”—In eastern UP, it is not the winds, but a storm brewing in the BJP’s favour. Not everyone in Varanasi agrees with Singh. “Work hasn't been done in Varanasi in the last three years. The centre hasn’t done anything,” Aftab Ahmad, an assistant professor in the Banaras Hindu University’s Urdu department, said. “The BJP has released its full force here. If you’ve done work then why do you have to expend so much effort?”
Varanasi, the constituency from which Modi won the Lok Sabha ticket in 2014, consists of five assembly seats, and goes to polls on 8 March, in the seventh and final phase of the state election. Muslims constitute approximately 20 percent of UP’s population, 15 percent of Varanasi district’s population and 29 percent of Varanasi city’s population. In the 2007 and 2012 assembly elections, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) respectively won an absolute majority in the state, with approximately 30 percent of the votes. Muslims, then, clearly wield a significant influence on the electoral outcomes of the city and the state.
Over the past few days, as the campaigning in Varanasi ramped up, I spoke to over 60 Muslim residents of the city. Most had a far from favourable view of the prime minister and his party on the issue of demonetisation—and indeed on much else.
At Kashi Vidyapith, a public university in Maldahiya, I met separately with two groups of around fifteen students each, all of whom were Muslim, and were members of the university’s Urdu department. Each time, we sat in the department’s library. Most criticised the prime minister and his party, though several students appreciated the work of the BJP’s sitting MLA from the Varanasi South constituency, Shyamdev Roy Chaudhari, who has held the seat for seven consecutive terms. Mohammed Nizammudin, a professor in the department, who was present during both interactions, said that Chaudhari “didn’t win because of Hindus alone.” He added, “He helped everyone.” Chaudhari has not been granted a ticket this time.
Many students brought up and criticised demonetisation. Obaid Zeyai, who lives in Jaitpura, said that he had to go all the way to Mughal Sarai, 14 kilometres away, to exchange his old notes. Another student, who requested to remain anonymous, mentioned that someone she knew committed suicide following financial issues that resulted from demonetisation.