In Varanasi, a lot can be read into the smiles of its people. When the Musalmaan of the city’s Madanpura mohalla were smiling in 1998, there was serious speculation at the city’s chai stalls that the decisive “Muslim vote” had swung in favour of the Congress.
It’s a lesson you learn from Kashi ka Assi — one of the definitive novels on Varanasi by Hindi litterateur, Dr Kashinath Singh — when the author narrates the political discussions that happen every evening at the Pappu tea stall near Assi ghat.
These days, however, everyone in Varanasi is frowning. The holy city is in the middle of a big political face-off — both Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP are contesting from Varanasi — that might even change its fortunes. But its residents don’t seem too pleased.
At the Assi ghat, Bhairav Muni, 60, is frowning because he can’t take the polluted waters of the sheher anymore. “It’s just too dirty. We have to buy drinking water now; too expensive,” he says, after introducing himself as “a sociologist, an anthropologist and lately, an astrologer too”.
Varanasi is in a state of crisis, he tells me at one of his regular evening visits to the ghat; one of the few places where “old people can still find respite from the city’s madness”. Bhairav is sitting with a group of old time BJP supporters who are confident that “Modi will bring vikaas to Varanasi”.
What does a city bursting at its seams want from the political heavyweights making a beeline for it? “People are hoping life will change if Modi becomes the pradhanmantri (PM). But nothing will happen,” grumbles Santosh Singh, who runs a food stall at Sonarpura, a busy mohalla in the heart of the city. Tonight, one of his diners, a young college student is raving about Modi’s development pitch.
But Santosh is skeptical: will Modi bring the electricity prices down? “Prices go up after every election. As it is, we are dependent on inverters; in the summers, power cuts could go up to 16 hours,” he says.
Locals such as Santosh feel that Varanasi has only been let down all this while: Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav distributed laptops in a region that barely gets enough electricity to charge batteries; Murli Manohar Joshi, the incumbent BJP MP now shunted to Kanpur to accomodate Modi, didn’t even do that.
A 10-minute rickshaw ride from Sonarpura is Madanpura, where electricity is a matter of survival. The streets are lined with shops selling ‘authentic’ Banarasi sarees, but locals say that the handloom industry here has been crushed after the power looms were introduced. Those who own the power looms get cheap electricity: they pay a subsidised rate of ` 60 a month for unlimited use. Handloom weavers, on the other hand, end up paying about Rs 700-800 a month.
“It’s hard to compete when the power loom wallahs can produce one sari a day; handloom weavers may take up to 15 days,” says Babu (he did not want his last name to be printed), a small shopkeeper who deals in lungis at Madanpura. Babu’s family quit the handloom business many years ago; others who are still working on the traditional loom are struggling to make ` 100 a day. Many have already given up: half of the weavers’ population has left town in search of work, locals say.
In the face of survival issues then, elections — and voting — takes a backseat: “We may not even vote this time; if we do, it will be for whoever will work to improve our condition,” says Babu.
Modi might have courted the weavers at his rally in December last year, but few locals are convinced. Didn’t he once claim that he doesn’t need our vote to win, they frown. “Look what he did in Gujarat. I saw it on TV,” says Abdul Aziz, 70, who is visiting Varanasi for a family wedding. Aziz moved to Amritsar a few years ago, and says his sons now make enough for them to eat well and get their kids married.
But he is miserable because he misses living with his “community”.
“We are thinking of moving to Surat. There are a lot of Muslims there. Surat is not like Gujarat, you know.”
For a while now, Varanasi has seen enough transformations to make it frown. Today, the city supports about 3.5 million people — six times more than what its infrastructure can support; and the narrow gullies are only becoming busier with scooters, motorcycles, cars and the ubiquitous cycle-rickshaws.
“The city of mohallas has now become a city of colonies,” says Kashinath Singh, stepping out of his house in the prominent Bridge Enclave colony. Neo-liberal policies that were introduced in the country in the Nineties have meant that the emerging city of colonies must support four malls, even if its sewage pipelines are choked, roads are crumbling and its residents are breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water and waiting for the development funds that never come through.
“People here are hoping for a miracle,” says Amitabh Bhattacharya, who freelances as a journalist and lecturer in Varanasi.
Indeed. Varanasi can only hope for a miracle: the fortunes of the Congress have declined; the SP and BSP are busy peddling identity politics; Modi is using Varanasi as a platform to capture the 32 seats in Purvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP)) and may even desert it if he wins from Vadodara, say locals; and Kejriwal is only “adding to the mess”.
The hope is evident in a city that is almost ready to buy Modi’s “development” pitch, and bet on his party that has been winning the Varanasi seat for two decades now. That wasn’t always the case, though: in the decades between the Fifties and Seventies, Varanasi and the surrounding districts have leaned to the Left. “CPI leader Sarjoo Pandey won the Lok Sabha seat from Ghazipur in 1967, and 1971.
In 1967, CPI (M) leader Rustam Satin won the Varanasi South seat by defeating a prominent Congress candidate,” says Dr Anand Pradhan, associate professor at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communication, and an alumnus of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
In the next few decades, however, the Congress took over, before the Mandir movement brought in the BJP.
Much as the rest of UP, the Bhojpuri-speaking region of Purvanchal was also plagued by a lack of governance and consequently, a fight for public resources, which was given a casteist, communal colour by several political players in the region, explains Pradhan.
The ascendance of the Hindutva movement in the Nineties took its toll on the city’s pluralist nature: locals are quick to invoke the city’s “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb” (a euphemism for Hindu-Muslim unity) that was disrupted by right-wing forces. “In this city, poet Nazeer Banarasi has written about offering namaaz near the Ganga. Here, even a renowed Sanskrit scholar such as Pandit Ram Avatar Sharma, who wore his dhoti-kurta with a hat, could remain an atheist all his life,” says Kashinath.
Nazeer Banarasi was falsely charged with communal motives in the Nineties, and today, Kashinath says, even the Pappu chai stall, where poets, artists, writers and professors gathered for political discussions, has turned into an adda for BJP supporters.
At the Pappu tea stall then, a tired town waiting for its messiah is tempted to buy Modi’s package for market-driven “change” and “development”. This evening, however, Dr Saroj Pandey, a poet-advocate, wouldn’t give in until he has convinced fellow poet Badri Vishal to accept Modi’s involvement in the Godhra riots. An old-timer, Devbrutt Chaubey, professor of philosophy at BHU, tries to soothe the two by invoking the socialists: “See, Dr Lohia had once said: jaise roti ko dono taraf palate ho, waise satta ko bhi ulte palate rehna chahiye (just as you flip the roti on both ends to cook it, you should keep flipping the government too). Just give Modi a chance to change things.”
Back at the ghat, Avdesh Mishra, 70, has also convinced his group. Why then is he still frowning? “This democracy is a farce; a poor man’s son can never get into politics. Democracy is only for the baahubalis (powerful men).”
But Modi is also a poor man’s son, someone from his group counters.
“Yes; but not anymore.”