Modi rides high on Brand Varanasi but not everyone’s cheering
- As the Ganga aarti trills out, its clear that an ancient city is getting a face lift under the aegis of its VIP MP, PM Narendra Modi.
- But locals say the Ganga Aarti is hardly an age old custom here, its not native to Varanasi.
The contrast between Varanasi and two other VIP constituencies in eastern UP, Amethi and Rae Bareli, is sharp. While there are no noticeable strides in infrastructure in the Gandhi bastions, Varanasi has clearly benefited from the Modi effect with a cancer hospital, a four-lane airport road, a soon-to-be-built heritage corridor connecting Kashi Vishwanath temple with the ghats, and regular power supply.
Not surprising, then, that in 2019 the PM appears to have few challengers to his almost inevitable re-election. Five years ago, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had put up a spirited challenge and become a rallying face for the opposition. But this time the Gathbandhan and Congress seem to have given up the fight.
Among residents of Varanasi, the debate is not about whether Modi will win, but about his victory margin. BHU students say Modi is highly inspirational for them as he has changed their city in positive ways. “I remember during the Mayawati years, there was never enough electricity,” says student Savita Pandey. “We used to go for our exams after spending nights in darkness, unable to sleep or study. It’s completely different now."
Says another student Sandeep Singh, “I came to Varanasi from Gwalior in 2015 and have witnessed the transformation. The roads are better and the ghats cleaner.”
But are there worries about curbs on free speech on students and professors as has happened in JNU? “Ours is a city of music, darshan (philosophy) and sanskriti. There is a lot of debate and disagreement, nobody can quell that spirit of Benarasis. We are all proud that we have a bold, strong leader who takes a stand against India’s enemies,” Says BHU music professor Madhumita Bhattacharyya.
However, under the glitz of Brand Varanasi lie angry voices of discontent. The Viswanath corridor project has sparked outrage among some sections as temples have been demolished to clear roads. Swami Abhimukteshwaranada of the Shri Mahavidya Math is on a yatra to spread awareness of what he calls the “destruction of loktantra” in Varanasi. He says he had fielded a candidate against Modi, but like the former jawan Tej Bahadur, his candidate’s nomination papers too were rejected on "flimsy grounds".
But why is Abhimukteshwarananda so angry? “I am not a BJP virodhi,” says the swami, “but since we oppose the destruction of temples by Aurangzeb, we must oppose Modi. At least Aurangzeb built holy places in place of temples. Modi is building malls!” The Swami says Kashi must be allowed to remain Kashi.
Other residents, however, say Modi has been right to evict holy men who have captured prime property by building temples.
Yet, is Varanasi’s unique spirit being lost in the bid to “develop” the city? Veteran scholar and prominent local Vishwanath Pandey, biographer of BHU founder Madan Mohan Malaviya, points out that BHU was built as a modern and progressive university to create future-oriented nation-builders. He applauds the work of the Modi government but laments the loss of Malaviya’s legacy. “Benares has never been about overtly displayed or politicised Hinduism. It is about free thought and the pursuit of excellence. Assi Ghat was a tranquil, transcendent place for meditation and thoughtful conversation. Today it resembles Chowpatty."
Some believe that the grave challenges to daily life in Varanasi are being effectively dealt with by the administrative systems Modi has put in place. "In the last few years we have seen what a responsive and effective administration looks like," says Bhanumati Mishra, head of department of English at PG Arya Mahila College.
But others are not so convinced. Varanasi's large community of silk weavers live in bustling Madanpura. Here, it seems as if there are two Varanasis, one the city of Modi, another the neglected town inhabited predominantly by Muslims. Weavers say the Benarasi silk saree industry is collapsing. Demonetisation led to business plummeting by almost 50%. “Varanasi’s Muslims — with 3 lakh voters — seem not to exist for Modi," says Weaver Aqeel Ansari.
Amitabh Bhattacharyya, veteran writer and philosopher, is regarded as one of Varansi’s modern sages. He says Varanasi is a city of Kabir, neither Hindu nor Muslim, but intensely and openly human. Bhattacharyya says residents of Varanasi have become fanatics in their loyalty to the PM. In the process they have buried the spirit of Benares. He proposes that a New Benares should be created on the outskirts, leaving the main city centre to be preserved as a heritage site. "To change Varanasi to Kyoto is like trying to cast Cleopatra as Smriti Irani,” he adds.
The ghats are certainly cleaner than ever before but retired BHU IIT professor and river expert Dr UK Choudhary says the Ganga remains dirty as ever.
Yet Modi fever runs high on the streets of Varanasi. Manish, owner of Pappu Ki Adi, a famous tea cafe where residents gather for chat sessions, says Varanasi is proud to have Modi as MP. “Modi supporters are in the majority here and generally win the argument." However, TOI witnessed that Modi supporters tend to win the argument because they simply shout down their opponents!
Benares! A city that inspired innumerable poets and philosophers, mystics and soul searchers. Where the unusually north-flowing Ganga teaches introspection. Where the divine jostles with crowds and filth. Benares is a gateway to India’s past, to a rollicking festivity, its spirit summed up by the alharpan (carefreeness) born of centuries of human existence, a deep-seated awareness that death exists in the bend of the river. It would be a tragedy indeed if this phenomenal place is choked by bitter politics or unthinking "development". For the moment, though, inspite of Priyanka's recent roadshow, Varanasi is rooting for Modi.