The city of Varanasi seems to have a twin existence. The lanes of Hinduism’s holiest city are witness to the tussle between old, crumbling buildings and nouveau, neat ones, where yoga classes are advertised alongside tutorials on spoken English and saffron robes of monks blend with saffron t-shirts of food delivery boys. It is the city described in Kedarnath Singh’s Hindi poem: “Agar dhyaan se dekho /To yeh aadha hai /Aur aadha nahin bhi hai /Jo hai weh khada hai /Bina kisi sthambh ke /Jo nahin hai usey thaamey hai.” (If you look closely, half the city is there, half isn’t. What’s there stands without a pillar, held by what isn’t there).
On a November evening, the ghats of Varanasi are peopled by a motley bunch—single folk and couples, young and old, locals and foreigners, people aspiring for moksha and college students—a bustle of life removed from their death-haunted ethos. Men poised on podiums perform aarti, hymns from loudspeakers aiding the performance. Boats glide on the darkening waters of the Ganga, lit up occasionally by the firing of flashes from phone cameras. One wonders if the eyes of the faithful imbue the spectacle with spiritual significance.
A group of elderly persons discuss the plight of the Ganga. “I used to take a dip every day. But in 2015, I told her, ‘Hey Maai! Ab tu hamare bas ki nahin’ (Oh mother! You are beyond me now),” says Bhawani Dutt (60), who makes a living by performing religious rites. One suggests that dismantling dams on the Ganga alone will have a miraculously cleansing effect. A second opines that the city’s population and the release of sewerage in the river must be checked.
Pollution in the Ganga has increased in the past four years despite nearly Rs 4,000 crores spent by the Centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won the Lok Sabha seat from Varanasi, had made a clean Ganga one of his key campaign promises. Asked about this, Dutt, a Gandhi cap on his head and tufts of hair sticking out from his ears, says: “We have had three PMs of consequence since Independence: Lal Bahadur Shastri, Vajpayee and Modi. The latter is an honest man, but how much can he do alone?” Others talk about Modi’s Swachhta (cleanliness) campaign, the underground electricity wires being laid in the city and the construction of various halls.
Crores were spent, but banks of the Ganga are dirty
Taking a walk with a friend at the Assi Ghat is 20-year old Saurabh Tiwari, who runs a backpackers’ hostel. “Ninety per cent occupants of my hostel are Israelis, because Modiji has established new relations with Israel,” says Tiwari, and pulls out his phone to show a poster of an Israeli film festival bearing a photograph of Benares. “That’s how you promote tourism. Plus, the ghats are much cleaner; two machines work at night on the river, cleaning all visible waste, and the city is getting gas pipelines.”
Silk loom workers complain of a rise in prices and traders talk of a fall in demand, but are broadly supportive of Modi.
As the night approaches, the crowd on the ghats thins out. Boatmen and chana masala sellers count their day’s earnings and dogs comb the place for leftovers. Sitting around with her husband, Arati Pandey, an assistant professor of museology at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) says, “As a citizen, I don’t think civic amenities like traffic regulation or healthcare have improved. I can see the BJP for what it is. There is just talk, very little work.” Yet she acknowledges Modi’s pull with the masses: “Whenever the PM comes, street vendors are shoved out of sight. But if you ask them who they’ll vote for, they still say Modi.” The PM is near at hand, too. A billboard near the BHU’s entrance prominently carries a solemn-looking image of Modi, with a message congratulating him for winning the Seoul Peace Prize and Champions of the Earth award. “You have upped the prestige of this country…. The country is proud of you,” the message reads.
Discontent, however, seethes within. A professor of history at BHU lashes out at the government for imposition of Central Civil Services Conduct Rules on teachers in an alleged attempt to muzzle criticism. “If I can’t be critical, am I even a professor?” she asks angrily. “What’s more saddening is how most teachers are unaffected by this diktat.” Furthermore, she is contemptuous about how BHU is run. “Girl students were beaten with batons for protesting a case of molestation…. No one has been brought to account for the assault and they are extremely disheartened,” she adds.
About 25 km from the city is Jayapur village—adopted by Modi under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. Two banks have popped up on the road leading to the village. Something akin to a bus stop looks new. In Jayapur, at a khadi-weaving unit, 75 women work and earn anything between Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000 a month. Solar-powered streetlights were installed too, but the batteries of most were stolen.
Jwala Prasad Singh (80), a resident, says except for new roads, much remains the same. “When we heard about the adoption, we thought factories will come. But our children still roam about unemployed,” he says. Jwala also wonders why an ordinance for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya isn’t materialising. Nonetheless, he feels that Modi is doing a good job, and other residents of the village concur.
Benares is an ancient bastion of the silk industry. Most silk tradesmen lament the drop in business, while workers bemoan how rates of everything—from thread to spindle—have gone up, except their wages. “The GST caused trouble, but eventually it will be beneficial. If we don’t pay the government anything, how will the country run? The Mohammedans here think differently,” says Kishalay Banerjee (63), a trader.
However, politicians of different hues are bitterly critical of the PM. “Modi did not pull off any feat by winning. This has been a BJP seat since ages. Even in 1960s and 1970s, when the Jan Sangh would fail to win even a single seat in entire Purvanchal, it would still win this seat,” says Shiv Kumar Singh (65), a retired politician once with the Samata Party.
“You [Modi] campaigned here saying Ma Ganga has called you, but the Ganga Putra [Ganga’s son] died on a fast,” says Shiv, referring to environmentalist G.D. Agarwal, who died on a fast, demanding a clean-up of the river. “You can’t tell Indians what to eat and wear. And what contribution do you have in the Independence struggle? Those who do not have a history are now out to change history!” he fulminates. Subodh Ram, a BSP member, says Modi has made national politics look like a village brawl: “He keeps doing you-did-this, you-did-that. Arrey bhai, what did you do?”
Despite discontent appearing like blemishes and blisters on the surface, Modi seems to be have held his appeal intact in Varanasi, a city suspended forever between a neo-Hindutva and ancient Hinduism, between the grossly patent and the transient, between what’s visible and what’s not.
By Salik Ahmad in Varanasi