14/05/2019 12:01 AM IST | Updated 15/05/2019 4:18 PM IST

Election 2019: Meet The Woman Challenging PM Modi In Varanasi

The SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, Shalini Yadav believes, makes her a formidable opponent.

Betwa Sharma/HuffPost India

VARANASI, Uttar Pradesh  On May 19, Shalini Yadav will fight her first ever Lok Sabha election against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi.

Yadav, a fashion designer, and the editor of her family-run Hindi language newspaper, was named the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance candidate after the Election Commission rejected former jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav’s nomination papers in the PM’s constituency.

The 2017 mayoral election in Varanasi is the only poll which Yadav has fought since she joined politics. She contested on the Congress ticket and placed second, with 1.14 lakh votes — the highest tally of a Congress candidate in any recent electoral contest in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bastion.

Yadav is the daughter-in-law of Shyam Lal Yadav, a Congress party leader, who won the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi in 1984. He also served as a Union Minister and deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Yadav attributes her 1.14 lakh votes in the mayoral election to her father-in-law’s goodwill, which, she believes, still cuts across caste and religious lines. That and the SP-BSP caste combine in Uttar Pradesh, she believes, makes her a formidable opponent. 

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In an interview with HuffPost India, Yadav spoke about how she ended up contesting against Modi, how it feels to be the second choice (after Tej Bahadur Yadav), and where she finds the energy to contest what many consider a losing battle.

You are going up against the most powerful man in the country. How do you see this contest?

First of all, it’s very interesting. I’m excited. I feel very fortunate to have been chosen — as a woman — to contest the most high-profile election in the most high-profile seat of the country at this time. I don’t think it’s a challenge for me, but a challenge for the Prime Minister. The hopes and aspirations of the people of Varanasi were — aur kisi ke acche din aaye naa aaye, Kashi ke to acche din aayenge. On the ground we see that nothing of the sort has happened.

Modi is likely to win Varanasi again. How do you go into what many regard a losing battle?

Yes, he is huge in terms of his position and popularity, but when you come down to the grounds on which an election is run — in 2014, there was a complete anti-establishment wave, which defied all expectations, across all religions and castes. We feel the same undercurrent here, this time. People are very angry. They feel cheated. People realise they did not get their acche din.  

The Prime Minister always says that he has given a lot of money to Varanasi and a lot of infrastructure work is going on. Okay, so perhaps it is going on. But when it comes down to basics — clean drinking water, removing garbage on a daily basis, sewers overflowing, severe pollution and traffic jams in the city, the plight of the Ganga. In the name of making Varanasi like “Kyoto,” the demolition of our temples in the Vishwanath corridor. These two are the sentiments which are the base of every Banarsi— and he used them to connect with the people. But Ganga, go see, is totally pathetic. He hardly met the local people here. I feel that he has more of a challenge.

Is it also about going down in the history books as the woman who challenged Modi in Varanasi? 

Definitely. I have already, I think. And let me tell you, I’m really going to give him a tough fight. His popularity has gone down, his vote share will go down, his margin will go down. Being a woman gives me an edge. The plight of women has been bad in his tenure. As you have used Ma Ganga, you have used that teen talaq slogan.

I’m really going to give him a tough fight. His popularity has gone down, his vote share will go down, his margin will go down.

Everyone likes to win. Where do you find the energy to fight a battle in which the outcome is inevitable — a losing battle? 

I’ve been in politics since 2017. Since then, since it was a local election, I’ve been fighting on these local issues. After five years of the PM’s tenure, I see those issues are unaddressed. I’m raising Varanasi’s local issues. I don’t have to talk about Rafale or national issues. I don’t want to lose focus. 

If you see the history of Benaras, the people have always decided who are the two main fighters. If you are talking about Arvind Kejriwal, he was a new face with no connection with Benaras, but he managed to get the anti-BJP votes. This is the trend of the city if you see in 2009 also. Mukhtar Ansari was from BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), which also has no presence in the city as such. But he lost by only 17,000 votes to Murli Manohar Joshi. It was not just BSP votes. The anti-BJP or anti-establishment votes are across caste and religious lines. This has been a pattern of the city. They experiment and they have a liking of new faces.

The (SP-BSP) alliance is giving me a strong start. If I am able to decrease his margin, and I am able to stop him with less votes than last time, I think it’s just as good as winning against the Prime Minister.

The anti-BJP or anti-establishment votes are across caste and religious lines.

How did your candidature from SP come about? You had wanted a ticket from the Congress?  

When I contested the (mayoral) election, I scored (1.14 lakh votes), the highest ever in the last 15 years for the Congress Party, including the last two Lok Sabha elections, even though Lok Sabha has double the voters than the mayoral constituency. I scored 40,000 more votes than the Congress party in that time. If you see the 2014 and 2009 (Lok Sabha) results, it was 66,000 and 75,000. I really performed well.

If the (Congress) ticket was given to anyone, I should have been a top priority. But somehow, I did not get space to work in that party. There is a new leadership and a new ideology. I’m an old Congressi. I have a legacy of 40 years. My father-in-law, Shyam Lal Yadav, was an MP from Varanasi in 1984 and he was deputy speaker of  Rajya Sabha, a three-time Rajya Sabha member, Union Minister, and he has done a lot for the city. That’s the reason, despite being a first timer, that I got so many votes. He was popular across castes and religions.

Samajwadi Party has always been second and the Congress was always third. That (2017) was the first time that Congress came in second and Samajwadi Party corporators were reduced from 39 to 14. But that performance was not given its due.

You are unhappy with the Congress.

They (Congress) has been talking of women empowerment, women being given tickets in party organisations, but you don’t see it. In this election, only 12% have been given. Then, the other issue is Chowkidar Chor Hai. You see what they have done in Chandauli and Bhadhoi — Shivkanya Kushwaha, the wife of an NRHM (the National Rural Health Mission scamaccused, she has been given a ticket. And Bahubali Ramakant Yadav, he has been given ticket. Rahul Gandhi always said that the aam karyakarta will be given tickets, they will be heard, but when elections come... in the last election also, whether Assembly or Lok Sabha...outsiders come in.

What did you make of Priyanka Gandhi saying that she wanted to contest from Varanasi, but eventually not doing it? 

It was a blunder. A big blunder. A very non-political approach. I don’t know what made her announce it. If you did it, you should have fought. It proves that Priyanka Gandhi was the trump card, closed fist as they say. It is open now. I don’t think they are left with anything else.  

If she had contested, SP-BSP would have very likely not fielded you. 

Might be.

If the (Congress) ticket was given to anyone, I should have been a top priority. But somehow, I did not get space to work in that party.

You must have felt relieved when she decided not to contest. 

I knew that she would not fight. This is not how you fight a big election. That to a personality like Priyanka Gandhi. If you decide you have to fight then the team comes one year in advance. You see that the Congress is zero in UP, sangthan wise, vote-base wise. It’s empty all over Purvanchal. I don’t know what made her say — should I run.

You asked what gives me the energy. The gathbandhan is a real power, and like Uttar Pradesh — for the first time in Varanasi — it is in a major fight with the BJP. This is the reason I’m so hopeful, so energetic and so confident.

What are the issues that you are raising? 

Drinking water, sewage overflow, the PM has a very important project of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, but you see the plight of the galli and mohallas here. Leave that five or six kilometers of the city area, which is decorated with Chinese lights and the beautifully painted water tanks, but they don’t supply water from that. They talk about the Babarpur airport road, but the poor people have nothing to do with that road. Go see the plight of the station road and the bus station. If you are staying in Varanasi, you must have been caught in a jam. That can happen anywhere here. There is not a single multi-level parking. Let him talk about Pakistan, I’m sticking to my issues.  

When did you speak with Akhilesh Yadav?

Akhilesh ji, I was always impressed by him. The way he has shaped his party — it used to be called gundon ki party — but now you see that he has eliminated all those factors. Not a single tainted person has been given a ticket.  

After the (2017 mayoral) election, I happened to meet him at a wedding. My sister-in-law is married to a political family in Mainpuri, and I met him there at a wedding. We had a short talk and he knew everything about me. He know that someone had been able to take his (SP) vote in Varanasi. He is very grounded. I did not have to introduce myself and tell him my data. He knew everything. This is what is required in a political supremo like him. This is the reason that he was able to form the gathbandhan. It was impossible to think that it would even work. He tried his best in the last that Congress should also form an alliance. I see him as an unchallenged face of the next CM in Uttar Pradesh.

When were you told that you would be contesting from Varanasi?  

It came all of a sudden. He wanted me to work for the party. I joined the party without any demand on 22 April. On the same day, after two hours, he decided my candidature. Just being a contestant from a high profile constituency like Varanasi, you get a lot of limelight. I have a chance to improve my standing as well. He said it is a huge election, but you must fight, and you being a woman, gives an edge to it.

But you were not the first choice. It was the former BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav.

For all of this, I was taken into confidence. There was a fear that he might not be able to make it. I was asked to have a nomination as a backup. I was there as a substitute.

Do you feel bad that you were not the first choice?

Yes, at one point, it felt bad. But if for the benefit of the party, some other calculation comes out, then I must respect that. And seeing his record, Akhilesh Yadav ji takes good care of his workers. When he meets people from Benaras, he will call 10 -15 people by their names. That is his quality. You’ve seen what happened in Phulpur, Kairana and Gorakhpur (by-polls). He is also known for that new kind of experimental politics. I didn’t feel that my future would be insecure. I have that faith in him. He took me into confidence, that was enough.

Do you feel that you have a future in the SP?

Yes. Definitely. I feel that my future is bright.