Among the many cities in India that this columnist never visited was Varanasi, which is why an invitation from the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) to give the Valedictory Address at a conference on foreign policy was accepted with alacrity. Visiting the city is akin to visiting a great-great-grandparent, for in a cultural sense that is what Varanasi is to every citizen. Had it been located in the UK or France or even China, the city would have been burnished and scrubbed so as to attract million more visitors from abroad than it does. However, Jawaharlal Nehru seems to have had a European disdain for "native" locales, and from his time in office, the city has remained neglected by a Central government that remains content to allow the surroundings of architectural jewels such as the Taj Mahal to be surrounded by filth and dust. Despite centuries of plunder and neglect, this country still has much more in the way of historical sites and architectural wonders than any other, and yet these are forced to exist on the borderline of destruction because of inadequacy of attention and funds. If Varanasi is indeed a great-great-grandmother, it is an ancestor that is sadly neglected. While the airport itself is passable, the road from there to the BHU is little more than a village track, with a medley of people and vehicles careening away in all directions. Because of the blessings of Kashi Viswanath, accidents are as rare as chaos is common.
Any sane national planner would have understood the potential of Varanasi not simply as a means of making the people aware of the timeless traditions of the city but as a way of ensuring that millions upon millions from across the world come to a city that despite decades of neglect still exudes the scent of tradition and nobility. Indira Gandhi put in train a cultural revolution in the 1970s no less severe in its effects than that started by Mao Zedong in China a few years earlier, but the incalculable effects on Indian culture, society and traditions of her rule have thus far gone unnoticed by historians scrambling for grants from the MHRD or from one of the myriad foundations devoted to keeping alive the mystique of the Nehru family. Part of the Indira Gandhi Cultural Revolution was to break the covenant that the Republic of India had entered into with princely India, through which instrumentality huge chunks of territory got transferred into the hands of the Central government. Certainly most of the princely families were in effect effete and incompetent, but nevertheless, retaining the sliver of privileges they were left with by Vapal Pangunni Menon and Sardar Vallabhai Patel (with the assent of Jawaharlal Nehru, secured after persuasion from Lord Louis Mountbatten) would have added to the colour and charm of India. Much is made of how India has followed the British example. The way in which princely India was done away with by the stroke of the pen of a speechwriter in 1969 was way different from the way in which the British have nurtured their own traditions.
Along the way, hideous skyscrapers afflict the eye, as also the usual collection of hovels with their sad-looking inhabitants. In its poverty, the city has not changed in three decades. The only structures that emit some scent of tradition are those that were built by royal families of the pre-Independence days, including many gifted by the raja of Benaras. The family of the former ruler now lives in obscurity, and one suspects, penury, such has been the fate of all those who were the social betters of the Nehrus in the 1920s and the 1930s. His successors must be weeping daily at the sight of what was once a glorious city, and still can be, if only the country had a government whose principals felt more at home in India than abroad, and who respected the culture and traditions of India rather than regard them as oddities and curiosities, the way some tourists to Varanasi clearly do. The Benaras Hindu University is itself a victim of such neglect of an important part of the core of what constitutes India. In its guest house, there is apparently no money to ensure that there are international (or indeed any English-language) channels on the television monitors set up in each room. The effect of budget cuts is visible in the furnishings and in the food, whereas the BHU ought to have been given much greater attention than has been the case for long.
And as for the Ganges, the less said about it the better. Any trace of cleanliness has vanished the same way as has the huge amount of money spent annually on its "cleansing". With leadership such as this, with governance of such a miserable quality, it is scant wonder that even Varanasi is marked by the filth and poverty that have become international metaphors for India.