The dust and the congestion never managed to eliminate the charm of Varanasi, a city considered as the spiritual pivot of close to a billion people. While the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport is modern, it looked a trifle the worse for wear during this columnist's previous visit a year ago. Litter was scattered around open spaces, while grime had discoloured walls. Those at work in ticketing counters or manning luggage belts, lounged around, indifferent to their tasks. However, the airport was bliss compared to the road to the Benares Hindu University, which overflowed with trash, and had tiny food kiosks in between for those courageous enough to risk dysentery and worse, by consuming them. Traffic darted in and out of each other, with only divine blessings preventing an accident every few minutes. Even the spaces regarded as sacred, around the temples, were darkened with grime and loaded with rubbish. Navigating the ghats in a boat was heart-breaking, less for the cremations taking place around the clock at the riverside, than for the way in which neglect had rendered the historic structures along the way into objects of revulsion. A goat would have found it difficult to navigate the often slippery trash along the way, although perhaps some of it may have been edible to the animal.
It was at Varanasi that Narendra Modi declared his intention to create a "Swachh Bharat", and part of the reason for accepting BHU's request to speak at both the inaugural as well as the valedictory sessions of a conference on foreign policy in the present time was to see how well or how scantily the constituency of the Prime Minister had responded to his call. The airport was clean, it looked as new as it was, while the roads outside were almost spotless, at least relative to what they had been before. Rubbish was absent, a reason being that dustbins had been provided to each "paan" and other food kiosks, something which could have been done during the past seven decades, but was not. For want of a dustbin, or perhaps more, the kingdom had been stinking. As for the roads, no longer did wheeled vehicles have to slow down to walkway levels to avoid running into those selling wares by the kerbside, and that too on roads which had no kerbs at all. They had vanished. Was this the result of some heavy-handed action by the police, on the lines of what takes place every now and again in Delhi or Mumbai? It would appear not, and that the shift to locations which did not pose an obstruction to traffic was voluntary. Even more miraculously, the Banarasi habit of seeing the world as a spittoon had disappeared, with few failing to use bins kept for the purpose, of course still not enough of them, for there were still occasional smudges of saliva and paan to be seen. However, where these had been universal, they were now confined to a very few places.
Who are the heroes of such an apparent transformation of Varanasi within a year? Now that he has become the Prime Minister, several who were otherwise somewhat blind to the virtues of Narendra Modi are now singing his praises, including not a few journalists and academics. However, Modi could never have succeeded in his "swachh" mission were it not for the fact that the residents of Varanasi appear to have finally decided that enough was enough, that if they could be litter-phobic in Dubai or Singapore, they could as easily be so at home. The change has been in attitude, in a rush of pride at their city, and a will to ensure that it not be defaced by its own. Spitting has become less commonplace, and doing so in public places rare. The people of Varanasi have suddenly confronted the fact that their city is an international heritage, and is the repository of a tradition which goes back millennia. Electric wires, which were all across roads and land spaces, are being placed underground, where they cannot stun an unwary passer-by, and drains have been cleared of filth and rendered serviceable. Such labour is not that of the state, but of the people, and there is scant reason why a similar transformation in attitude, a similar boost in pride, cannot take place across the country, so that visitors from afar do not sneer at the people of this country for their slovenliness. In Narendra Modi, India has its first post-colonial Prime Minister, and he is in charge of administering a country whose people are speedily shedding their diffidence and sense of inadequacy. Although still burdened by a colonial bureaucracy, which destroys initiative and slows activity to a crawl, the expectation is that Modi will fulfil his promise of "Minimum Government, Maximum Governance" by replacing India's system of British laws for slaves with laws designed for a free people, something that PMs thus far have declined to do, aware that once accomplished, the scope for bribes would diminish exponentially. Unlike a colony, which in effect is what India has been under its Worst-In-Asia administrators, a free country is worth keeping "swachh", is worth keeping honest, and hopefully the transformation seen in Varanasi will spread elsewhere. If this once garbage-ridden city could be transformed, if Chandigarh can remain clean and pleasant despite six decades of local administration, there exists no reason why the rest of India cannot.