Benaras ki Subah — the mesmerising splendour of the sun rising from the Ganga — beckoned more than 52 lakh tourists from all over the world in 2013 to roam around the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Varanasi.
It’s in these lanes where the real Benaras lives and perhaps never sleeps. The chai ki adi (tea stalls) are centres of daily debates and discussions on issues as ethereal as life and Moksha and as earthy as broken roads, unkempt ghats, the polluted Ganga and the dying silk and carpet industry — the list is endless.
The ancient city that has reverberated with the melody of the Shehnai of the late Bismillah Khan and the Tappas and Kajris of Girija Devi is decaying with age and utter neglect — a perfect example of a city high on spiritualism and low on development.
But ever since the BJP’s PM nominee Narendra Modi has taken the plunge from Varanasi, a new romanticism prevails, generating hopes of building Kashi, and not just the Vishwanath temple, which was on the agenda of the saffron brigade along with Ayodhya and Mathura in the early 1990s.
The man in the street is gravitating towards Modi not for his Hindutva face, but for his shining Gujarat, besides the enthusiasm to elect the PM, and not just a member of Parliament.
This time, the unique feature is all the heavyweights fighting for Varanasi are outsiders, right from Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP and to Digvijay Singh of the Congress, in case they decided to contest against Modi.
The political dynamics in Varanasi, where people have settled from all across the country, has changed since 1991 when BJP candidate and former cop SC Dixit had ridden the temple wave to Parliament with shouts of Jai Sri Ram filling the air.
Since independence, this was the first election won by the BJP from Varanasi — the winning spree continued till 1999 and broke only in 2004. It resumed in 2009 when BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi won the seat in a highly polarised atmosphere.
Mukhtar Ansari, the mafia don and BSP candidate, who fought the election from behind bars, had fallen short of barely 17,000 votes. Reports are that he will stay away from the poll arena this time.
Although Modi didn’t allow contentious issues to be raised at his rally, his past still influences three lakh minority voters. Amid reports of Modi’s Muslim supporters reaching Varanasi from Gujarat to solicit support, Mufti-e-Benaras Maulana Abdul Watin said, “They all are bikao (purchasable).” He appealed to all secular parties to launch a joint candidate.
During the past 20 years, the chants of Mandir Yahin Banayenge (We’ll build the temple here) have evaporated in thin air. The common man’s wisdom: Much water has flown down the Ganga since the mandir-masjid tension. Now is the time for education and employment.
But people are now apprehensive of Modi’s next move, demanding his commitment that he would not quit Varanasi once he wins also from Vadodara. Rakesh Jain, president Kashi Vyapar Mandal, said, “People have high hopes from him. But while Modi will win, Kashi will lose.”
BJP leader Rakesh Trivedi said, “Modi has his eyes on the 2017 assembly polls. He will not quit Varanasi after becoming the prime minister.”
On how much time Modi will spend on campaigning, Trivedi said, “He is a big leader who has to campaign across the country. But he will give a couple of days to his constituency before the polls.”