Younger generation’s preference for modernity could guarantee Modi's hat-trick in Varanasi

Congress says beneath the city’s shiny sheath is a story of displacement and fear

44-Narendra-Modis-campaign-signs Pervasive presence: Narendra Modi’s campaign signs on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi | Pawan Kumar

MEMORY IS A powerful thing. But so is identification. In Varanasi, the two are fused into a heady political brew.

An aching echo of the nostalgia of Banarsiyat―the lived, carefree essence of the city―is battling a younger generation’s aspiration for modernity. In its clash is stretched a city, older than memory.

The pride of being a ‘VIP’ constituency is an overriding factor in Varanasi. There is much to show for it, too, especially in terms of road and rail connectivity.

This friction of times is visible at the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, a project that has cleaned up the surroundings of the abode of Shiva that mythically rests on the middle prong of his trident. This abode was dotted by close-set old houses and small temples, yielding the devotee a glimpse of the Kashi Vishwanath temple only from proximity. Now it is visible from afar, thanks to the corridor. The devout count the loss of smaller but significant temples and the inexplicable permission to operate cafes on the corridor premises as the unforgivable cost of newness.

Divraj Mishra comes from a family of pandas (religious guides). In his 30s, he is squashed between the generation which clings to recollections and the one that seeks the new. He said it was strange that a party which claimed dedication to the cause of sanatan was turning around the tenets of what was an eternal religion. “Shiva does not reside alone. But when the corridor was built, his family members, including Ganesh (Shiva’s son), were disregarded,” he said. Mishra was particularly dismayed at the attempts to dislodge the tiny temple of Dundhiraj Ganesh, a deity who must be visited before paying obeisance to Shiva. A campaign to save the temple has protected it partially.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a third term from Varanasi, had vowed to turn the city into Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. But residents like Mishra wonder how destruction will ensure that.

Modi’s association with Varanasi has flipped its tourist numbers. In the last two years, 13 crore people have come visiting. The increased number is in line with how Uttar Pradesh has performed overall. In 2021, the tourist arrival to the state was 10.9 crore. It 2023, it went up to 48 crore.

Beneath Varanasi’s shiny sheath is a story of displacement and fear, said Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate. During the pandemic, FIRs were filed against journalists who wrote about poverty and want. Hundreds have been displaced for just being in the path of showcase projects like the Namo Ghat. Old buildings like the Sarva Sewa Sangh (founded by Jayaprakash Narayan as a repository of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy) have been demolished to make way for a sprawling hotel. Cruises on the Ganga have scared away riverine life.

Rai, who is the state Congress president, said his party had opposed all the above. “But when you are threatened by bulldozers, what do you do?”

In 2014, Rai got 7.34 per cent of the votes, the Samajwadi Party’s Kailash Chaurasiya 4.3 per cent and Modi 56.37 per cent. In 2019, Modi polled 63.6 per cent. And while the Congress and the SP also increased their tallies to 14.4 per cent and 18.5 per cent, respectively, this combined strength is not enough to dislodge Modi.

Asraf Ali, a weaver from the city’s Madanpura area who attended Modi’s road show on May 13, said, “The prime minister has given a lot to Varanasi and is constantly monitoring projects. But a true leader should bring people together.” Munna Pandey is a trader of Varanasi’s GI-tagged Banarasi weaves. He said he was a staunch supporter of the BJP despite the fact that he had to abandon all his 15 looms. This, he said, was because corporates had entered the weaving industry. “They paid the weavers more than what we were paying. So the weavers preferred to work with them, but now that the wages have been brought down, they have no choice.”

A 300-loom Weavershala is among these corporate initiatives. Its objective is to modernise techniques and to give steady work to weavers. “But this takes away the freedom and choice of the individual weaver. He is reduced to being an employee. Companies like Tata and Reliance will slowly have monopoly over the craft,” said Pandey.

In Varanasi, the pride of being a ‘VIP’ constituency is an overriding factor. There is much to show for it, too, especially in terms of road and rail connectivity. The dairy sector is another significant beneficiary with a new milk plant that has a daily capacity of four lakh litre, the installation of three lakh bulk milk coolers and another first-of-its-kind biogas-based milk plant.

None of this takes away from Varanasi’s knottiest problems, among them painful traffic jams. Some 20,000 battery-operated autos―locally called ‘toto’―add to the crawl. The city’s drainage system is ineffective and a single heavy shower is enough to clog the roads. In the low-lying area of the cantonment, which houses multiple hotels, rainwater can knock at the entrance. Despite the city drawing its water from the Ganga, supply is erratic.

According to the dashboard of the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), Modi had spent more than the sanctioned funds of Rs22 crore on his constituency, till January this year. Of 292 recommended works, 275 were completed. Note that the MP can only recommend projects, the implementing authority is at the district. Why would this matter? Well, consider another high-profile constituency, Rae Bareli, represented by Sonia Gandhi. As per the latest update, of 243 recommended products, only 209 were completed. Against Modi’s 94 per cent, this is 86 per cent. Thus, the might of an MP matters much.

It is this might that powers the identification Varanasi feels for its most famous MP. And for now, it will triumph over memory.