He came but Did Modi see the crumbling Varanasi?
To move around in Benaras (also known as Varanasi), it is better to let go off the four-wheeler. And if you are anywhere near the congested markets and by lanes along the Ganga ghats, the only advisable mode of transport is by foot.
No wonder then that on 24 April two helicopters were kept ready to ferry BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, around the city – one to bring him from the city’s Babatpur airport to the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) helipad and the other at the police lines to take him back to the airport. For the city, he used a VVIP-secured convoy of SUVs and cars. The occasion: Modi was to file his MP nomination papers at the collectorate. Varanasi came to a complete standstill as a tsunami of supporters and onlookers came out to see Modi. The only thing that could move or, rather, crawl amidst this was Modi’s convoy.
On Thursday morning, an estimated 30,000 people, most of them wearing identical saffron caps, gathered around the rather small area in front of BHU, adjoining the city’s popular Lanka market at 8.30 am and waited for over two hours for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate to come. He was to garland the statue of BHU founder late Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya before heading for the road shows and nomination for his MP candidature. When he arrived, the VVIP security was thrown out of gear and men and women hopped to the cars in the convoy. Several patients and their families who were headed towards the hospital were stuck inside the BHU campus. When Modi moved towards Kashi Vidyapeeth from where he was to go towards the city’s Mint road, only a few of those gathered at BHU gate could follow him as the roads were packed. According to some estimates, there were over one lakh people on Modi’s convoy path. It was difficult for even journalists to follow his convoy. ‘You cannot move along with his convoy. There would be no space for your car to move. Unless you have another journalist colleague already waiting at the collectorate, you will not be able to cover it,’ said one security officer.
If not for the lift on the bike of a local reporter and some shortcuts through extremely narrow lanes of Varanasi that took this correspondent to a flyover in front of the railway station, covering Modi’s march to the collectorate it would have been impossible. There were several college-going voters who cheered for Modi on his way to file the nomination. One such young girl, Shreeja Mishra, a first-time voter and student of social science at BHU, said she will vote for Modi as he ‘has done great development in Gujarat’. Mishra, who is from Azamgarh, also has Modi supporters in her family. Asked if she thought Modi would salvage the crumbling Varanasi city, she said ‘she hoped so’.
How much of today’s crowd that thronged to see Modi’s convoy would convert into votes and how much of a fight the fledging AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal will put up will only be known on 16 May. In Varanasi, on Thursday morning, however, it was difficult not to let one’s mind get besieged with the popularity Modi seems to enjoy here. However, in Modi’s day-long dramatic ‘He came, he saw, he conquered’ visit to Varanasi, little did anyone have the chance and space (literally) to ask if the person touted to be the next prime minister would know the deteriorating conditions of city’s handloom weavers that once was the mainstay of Varanasi’s economy.
For that matter, in the run up to the electioneering for the next lok sabha, the real issues that concern peoples’ lives has been lost in high-pitched political slogans. Varanasi has a glorified social history. But beyond the legacies and its image as shown on tourism ministry websites, there is another story- that of the unchanged socio-economic status of a sizeable section that makes up the city’s composite culture. The very design of Modi’s ‘high-fly’ plan en route to filing his nomination underlines the city’s crumbling infrastructure and the inequalities that prevail here.
By arrangement with Governance Now