Highway gossip, sold-out media and Modi roti: A Varanasi diary

Highway gossip, sold-out media and Modi roti: A Varanasi diary

By JOYEETA BASU | Varanasi | 10 May, 2014
AAP’s Sanjay Singh holds up a ‘Modi roti’

The highway gossip in Varanasi is about the "something that is going on" in Uttar Pradesh. "Kuchh to chal raha hai, andar andar," say a clutch of drivers who have been touring the state. "It was like this in 2007 and 2012. Nothing was clear, and suddenly haathi (Mayawati's symbol) and cycle (Samajwadi Party symbol) swept," one of them says while standing in front of a car repair shop in Shivpur in rural Varanasi. This time the symbol could be different. In Varanasi city the talk is about who is winning which seat. Even before it is national news, Varanasi's lanes have started whispering that Mulayam Singh Yadav is in trouble in Azamgarh and Ballia will not be a cakewalk for Neeraj Shekhar, the son of the late Prime Minister Chandrashekhar.

It was at the mechanic shop in Shivpur that one meets a voluble Aam Aadmi Party supporter, Tiwari. He is a man Arvind Kejriwal can be proud of. He has learnt by heart AAP's arguments and waxes eloquent on why Kejriwal left power (it was a sacrifice), on how they changed Delhi in 49 days, the kind of work they did that no one has done in 66 years of India's independence. He tops off his commentary with the bold claim that media is bought and that is why they are not talking about Kejriwal. His assertion is a mirror image of what Dhruv, a theatre artist from Mumbai and an AAP volunteer said earlier in Varanasi city: "The reporters are not bad. It is their bosses who are forcing them to write against Arvind."

At the AAP's Lok Sabha office in Shivaji Nagar, journalists match AAP volunteers in number at a press conference being addressed by Arvind Kejriwal. He and his men are friendly and at ease with the reporters. AAP leader Sanjay Singh holds up a roti on which the slogan "Aab ki baar Modi sarkar" is imprinted in Hindi. "BJP has spent Rs 3 lakh in giving such roti machines to the dhabas," he tells this newspaper. During the press meet, Kejriwal talks of his apprehension that the BJP would rig the elections. His plaintive plea to the reporters is to give some publicity to his comments as he does not have the money to do so.

At the BJP headquarters in Rathyatra, questions about AAP are met with a cricketing analogy. "When a batsman is hitting six, does he turn back to see what is happening behind him?" It is at Ajai Rai's Congress office in Sigra that maximum scorn is reserved for Kejriwal and AAP, including epithets like "CIA agent" and "NGO mafia". Even though the Congress is talking about taking on Narendra Modi, its real worry is that it will be relegated to the third place by Kejriwal.

Religion is all about politics. The self-proclaimed Shankaracharya Narendranand of Kashi Sumeru Peeth says it is his duty to declare his support of Modi to save the country. He says he will infuse Modi with adhaytmik shakti (spiritual power) so that he achieves victory. Now you know the secret behind Modi's success.

Kashi Vishwanath temple near the Ganga is a sea of calm on a blazing summer afternoon. The temple stands cheek-by-jowl with the Gyanvapi or Alamgiri mosque, which was erected by Aurangzeb after demolishing the original Vishwanath temple. The gate of the erstwhile temple is still visible on the boundary wall of the mosque. The compound is heavily guarded and barricaded, with ominous looking steel fences and armed soldiers separating the two shrines. The afternoon however is marked by a complete lack of rancour. From the priests to the flower sellers, the chorus is, "We do not have any problems with the mosque being here, no problems at all. The same applies to the Muslims who visit the mosque for namaaz."

Cleaning the Ganga and restoring the heritage buildings and ghats is a major election issue in Varanasi. The river is breaking its banks and hollowing out the foundations of the ghats, forts and temples that comprise ancient Varanasi. But nothing is being done to restore them because a 7 km long stretch of the river has been declared a tortoise sanctuary and a protected zone. The controversial DM of Varanasi, Pranjal Yadav has been lobbying with the UP government to get the tortoise sanctuary shifted, but nothing has happened on that front. The UP government, say Varanasi residents, lacks the will to preserve Varanasi's heritage.

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