Ballot ‘WAR’anasi, Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Modi Vs Kejriwal. Whether one believes in the popular saying or not, from times immemorial, Kashi...
With Gujarat Chief Minister deciding to contest from the holy city of Varanasi for Lok Sabha and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal challenging him, the predominant pilgrim city has turned into a political hotspot. With regional parties like SP and BSP and national party Congress searching for counterweights to Modi and Kejriwal to corner them in a multi-party contest, the Varanasi Constituency is set to become the mother of all poll battles in the upcoming parliamentary elections Benares, Kashi, Kasi, Varanasi, call it by any other name, the city is holy and eternal for crores of Hindus who believe a dip in the Ganga river and in the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, about 150km from Benares, will wash away all sins.
Whether one believes in the popular saying or not, from times immemorial, Kashi has been a spiritual magnet; attracting royalty and the laity, saints and sinners, and in modern times, politicians and foreigners. They make a beeline to the ancient city to discover or rediscover its eternal appeal to believers of Hinduism and others. Does it spiritually elevate them as many visitors claim or does it reflect a spiritual India on a small canvas called Kashi? It depends on how one looks at it and the experiences of every tourist/pilgrim are personal and they vastly differ.
However, one should admit that Varanasi is a microcosm of India. Life goes on amidst hustle and bustle, dust and dirt and sweltering heat and biting cold. Pollution is multi-dimensional – land, water, air and sound – and nobody complains. Everybody takes it in one’s stride. Often, a thick blanket of dust and smoke envelop the city, making visitors who are not used to high pollution levels choke and breathe with difficulty.
Even if one endures the short journey through the main streets leading to the main Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, the sights and smells in lanes and by-lanes would challenge the sensory perceptions of the urbane. Littered with garbage, sewage flowing in open drains, holy cows loitering in the narrow streets lined with small shops that sell everything and anything that is considered sacred, the area around one of the holiest Hindu sites looks a bit surrealistic as one walks through the labyrinth towards the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity of Varanasi, Lord Shiva.
The city is sacred, as every resident says, and blessed by the Hindu Pantheon, particularly Lord Shiva, the destroyer in the Trinity, whose presence in the form of linga at the Kashi Vishwanath temple on the banks of Ganges seems to have a magic spell on residents and visitors who see life as transient and is in constant flux. What you see there is what the world is made of, a naked truth that dawns upon whoever visits the Manikarnika Ghat where cremations remind one and all of the ephemeral nature of human existence.
It is difficult to say whether one suddenly turns philosophical as a visit to the holy place in olden days was considered as the last journey in one’s life or the strange mix of sadhus, pundits, pilgrims, hordes of foreigners armed with cameras to capture the images of incredible and mystic India and local residents who go about doing their chores nonchalantly.
That’s the secret of Kasi, our young guide has averred during my recent trip. For centuries, like the majestic river Ganga, flowing down the Himalayas and washing away the sins of the devout Hindus in the holy city. Varanasi has retained its old world charm and its quintessential quality of accommodating every faith, dogma and belief. With parliamentary elections looming large, and almost every major party throwing its hat into the Varanasi Constituency ring, suddenly, the Holy City has turned into a major battle ground for ballot. Not everybody likes the sacred ground to turn into a political magnet. The constant media focus and unending debates on the prospective candidates and their parties eyeing Kashi victory have made the city most important for all wrong reasons. It all began with BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi descending on Varanasi with a prayer on his lips and an appeal to voters to elect him as the BJP candidate for Lok Sabha in the May 12 poll. Since he was the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring, his decision was hailed with roars of approval by a majority of Hindus in the Varanasi constituency. But soon it dawned upon them that Modi has chosen Kashi as second constituency to contest from after Vadodara in his native Gujarat State.
While BJP cadres and hardcore Modi supporters back his decision and see nothing wrong in selecting two cities that are separated by a distance of over 1,000km, opposition is slowly building up and it can be summed up in the words of a boatman who crossed us to the other side of Ganges in Kashi: Standing from two constituencies is like fighting with two wives simultaneously.
It may be a rustic way of expressing his opinion. But some others share it in a different way: If Modi is confident of winning a seat in his own State, why should he come all the way to Varanasi to contest? Does it mean he is not sure; or, does he want to prove his popularity even in a place like Varanasi that is not even remotely contiguous to Gujarat? For many, it hardly matters since Lok Sabha aspirants have the privilege and luxury of pick-and-choose any seat of their liking. When others, including former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Mulayam Singh Yadav, can do, why Modi has been made an exception to the rule?
That is the take of a pundit who accompanied us on a boat to Triveni Sangamam in Allahabad in the hope of making us pay ritualistic respects to the departed souls. Once we left the ancestors in peace, he started propounding how the ‘Modi factor’ could change the country. He seemed to have more well-versed in politics than in scriptures. The pundit’s punch line -- or is it the last word on Modi? – is that he is decisive. But the decisiveness is sharp-edged. Whether the pundit is pointing at skeletons in Gujarat CM’s cupboard I don’t know.
Whatever said and done, Modi has electrified the election scene in Varanasi, though it is grotesque to see a pilgrim centre turn a political hotspot with every political party trying to challenge the Gujarat strongman on the holy turf. While the Congress and Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadis are still trying to find a heavyweight to counter Modi, Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal has plunged head-on into the fray, with the slogan “Ab to Sheila hari hai, ab Modi ka bari hai” (Sheila Dikshit has lost; now it is the turn of Modi). But his campaign planks are city-centric: Sewer, river and weaver. Probably, for the first time, a political leader has expressed concern over problems that are ubiquitous but none talks about them.
For a city that attracts thousands of visitors every day, many of them are Telugus, and lakhs on special occasions, it is picture perfect dirty. Even if a portion of revenues Varanasi earns from tourism – it is the second most important after weaving and related industries – it will look a little tidy. But, for reasons best known to authorities and residents, its upkeep and maintenance is left to some invisible force. The result is an ancient city with primitive infrastructure that is creaking at the seams, unable to cope with an ever increasing road and pilgrim traffic. It is difficult to imagine the city’s condition and the residents’ plight during the rainy season.
The Ganges River at Varanasi is heavily polluted and decades of efforts to clean it up has met with only frustration and now it looks as if it is left to find a way to clean itself. At least the Ghat section needs to be kept clean since thousands of devotees take a holy dip every day. They can do it only when they are oblivious of surroundings.
Weavers, mostly Muslims, are an important community which is also a potential vote bank. The arts and crafts, including famous Benares silk saris, created by Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are unique and most of them are sold by Hindu shopkeepers. Of late, the weavers are facing a threat from Chinese who are dumping cheap textiles in the market hitting the livelihood of poor weavers.
Kejriwal is sensible enough to address the three key issues to endear him to voters. Muslims who constitute 18 per cent of Varanasi population have a lurking fear about Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots and his nemesis provides a good platform for most of the Muslims to come together and stand by him. A good poll strategy, by any reckoning.
Despite some goodwill he has generated during his recent campaign visit, amidst black flag protests and spraying of ink on him, allegedly by Modi supporters, can Kejriwal trounce Gujarat’s strongman? The odds are heavily loaded against the AAP chief in spite of his down-to-earth appeal to the youth. Though Modi has not touched any subject that is relevant to Varanasi residents, somehow or other, people appear to have made up their minds to send Modi to New Delhi since he is a ‘strong leader.’
But that’s not going to be a cakewalk. Modi’s credentials as a moderate, leave alone secularist tag, in the holy city are zero and the residents don’t want communal tensions. Already, he has waded into a religious controversy with his supporters chanting “Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi” punning on “Har Har Mahadev.” Surely, it has religious connotations, with some scholars, including two Shankaracharyas, denouncing the slogan as equating Modi with God and deifying him. With an unconvincing explanation, the jingle got a new tune, still with Modi chant, “Dil mein Modi; Ghar mein Modi; Kashi ke kan kan mein Modi.”
As a poll slogan, it is catchy and one hopes to see its demise once the election is over. If it continues to be propagated with unbridled enthusiasm, it will turn into a personality cult with ominous signs. Hara Hara Mahadev!