Ansari was amongst the last to announce his candidature, but even so he came under tremendous pressure as Muslims and others from not just Varanasi, and not just Uttar Pradesh, but from Mumbai and Hyderabad telephoned him to drop out of the fray. Ansari who has a committed weavers vote bank initially refused, but the pressure became so intense that just late last week he decided to opt out. Ansari himself is in jail for allegedly being involved in the murder of Congress candidate Ajay Rai’s brother, but his own brother arrived in Varanasi from Gazipur to make the necessary announcement.
There was an immediate and palpable sense of relief in Varanasi. One, because the anti-Modi vote would not get so badly divided but two, and more importantly the BJP would not be able to use his candidature to polarise the campaign and the vote. Significantly none of the other non-BJP parties have fielded a Muslim candidate for exactly the same reason, even though the minority vote in Varanasi is close to three lakhs. And till date the campaign of all has been secular without any attempt to divide the people on religious lines. The Aam Admi party in particular has been especially careful and as their volunteers said that even if they attempt to meet Muslim leaders, the BJP will be “after us to communalise the entire issue.”
No one is more aware of this than the Muslims themselves and have made it clear that they do not expect, or even want, the candidates from the secular parties to visit them. The community from within is making preparations for a high turnout with several meetings being held to ensure this in the different mohallas of Varanasi, but till date no decision has been taken about who it will vote for. Voters are being told to cast their vote and then return to their localities and help and motivate others to cast their votes as well. This is a first for Varanasi that is feeling the heat of the crucial poll, and yet is determined to ensure that efforts to breach secular harmony do not succeed.
There was tremendous interest in Kejriwal when he arrived in Varanasi for the first time, but the long absence has created levels of worry amongst the non-BJP voter, and in particular the minorities who are now not that sure of AAP’s prowess in the field. As a result when the Congress announced its decision to field local legislator Ajay Rai as the Lok Sabha candidate, the Muslims added him to their list of ‘possibles’
Mufti-e-Banaras Maulana Abdul Baatin Nomani told The Citizen that a decision was still pending, and agreed that these issues are decided closer to polling day. He said that until the Congress had not announced its candidate, the Muslims had been looking at Kejriwal. “But now Ajay bhai is there as well, people know him well locally,” he said. He said that the effort should be for all Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly those involved in different ways in the huge sari business, to come together and vote for a secular candidate. He said that while preparations to ensure that the vote did not split were on, the minorities had still not taken a clear decision in favour of one or the other candidate.
The minorities, as conscious as the political parties, of possible efforts by the communal forces to polarise Varanasi are keeping their head above the waters by not issuing controversial fatwas or making provocative statements. In fact there seems to be an unspoken decision within the community not to be seen as excessively in favour of one or the other candidate, lest it boomerang. However, it is clear that the minorities will watch the situation closely and vote for the candidate who has a support base other than them, and hence best placed to defeat Modi and the BJP. Community leaders are playing a major albeit very quiet role to ensure that the vote is not split on polling day, and is cast to the largest extent possible behind one single candidate in a clear demonstration of tactical voting. The grapevine being set up with rare unanimity amongst the local leadership the minorities hope, will work in the final analysis.