Varanasi: The Gujarat assembly election is not the only litmus test facing prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP this year. Modi's Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi is all set to elect its local self-government. Has the Varanasi municipality's political affiliation changed in the aftermath of demonetization and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax?
Varanasi is perhaps the most-watched among all the local self-government elections in Uttar Pradesh starting November 22. The results of the Varanasi election will be out on December 1, before Gujarat goes to polls on December 9 and 14. That leaves the BJP little room for error and complacency.
The pilgrim town was hit by demonetization in various ways. The flow of visitors was reduced to a trickle, hitting almost all trades in the town. The hospitality industry was just on the path of recovery when the GST imposed fresh burdens on it. “You never know when our MP, and your PM, will think up some other reforms,” said Deepak Pandey, a pilgrims’ guide.
Demonetization affected wages in the town for months. The GST came as an additional blow. Even the famed Benaras silk trade was affected as unscrupulous middlemen made a killing by exploiting a lack of clarity in the new system, said Vasudev, one of the many weavers in the town.
Not everyone is worried about the GST though. Siddique, a lassi seller, said he hardly felt any change though big businesses seemed to be affected.
“People should stop criticizing Modi for everything,” said Jadhav, who drives Varanasi’s version of tuk tuk. “Of course he messed up in the beginning because he was just a chief minister before he became a prime minister. But he corrected himself soon. He is ready for that. Modi and (UP chief minister) Yogi are working tirelessly for the country,” he said.
Varanasi is yet to reveal its cards though the ruling and opposition camps expect their political stands to have a bearing on the people’s verdict.
The BJP is hopeful. The coalition it leads swept all eight assembly segments of Modi’s constituency in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election which came right after the demonetization drive. However, the GST faux pas has antagonized the dominant merchant community.
The BJP has strengthened its appeal to its traditional base by offering to anoint as Varanasi mayor Mridula Jaiswal, the wife of a prominent merchant. The party has projected at least 10 other businessmen to the posts of mayors across the state. The Union government is also on a firefighting mode, relaxing the tough GST proposals in favor of the merchants.
The BJP promises to take all electricity lines in the town underground and to give a face-lift to the roads. Cleanliness is another poll plank.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties including the Samajwadi Party have already put up posters highlighting the sewage-like roads and the polluted Ganga River.
Residents believe that Kasi Viswanathan, the presiding deity of the town, does not disappoint anyone who comes to his adobe. If Modi was given the mandate to rule over India, his challenger in the Lok Sabha election, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, was later rewarded with the chief ministership of Delhi, they said.