BJP is banking on Varanasi, which is Purvanchal’s religious, cultural and commercial nerve centre, to do well in the region.
Varanasi: Varanasi is star-struck, love-struck and in awe of the “marvel that is Narendra Modi”, apart from being fiercely protective. Five years after he first fought the Lok Sabha elections from here, the Prime Minister is credited with having “changed the face of the constituency and its neighbouring areas”, with the taxi driver who was deciding between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal in 2014, going into paroxysms of delight while showing off the highways, elevated roads and Ring Road that have come to surround the city, and the four/six-lane highways that are being constructed to course through the whole of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Power supply is there 24X7, unlike five years ago, when hours of daily power cuts were the norm. Maximum push has been given to infrastructure building, with the two most visible indicators of development, roads and electricity, getting major attention, apart from cleanliness and several projects and schemes that have been initiated and implemented. Add to this the towering figure of the Prime Minister and the battle for Varanasi is a no-contest. “Even if Congress had fielded Priyanka Vadra from here, the election would have been one-sided” is the refrain in these parts. If there is a contest, it is in the neighbouring constituencies—in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in particular and Purvanchal (including parts of Bihar) in general. But the BJP says that it is confident that the “Varanasi effect” will help it sweep Eastern UP, which is going to vote on 12 and 19 May. Varanasi is the religious, cultural and commercial nerve centre of Purvanchal, with people from different parts of the region either residing in this ancient city or being regular visitors here for reasons of livelihood. It is these people who are expected to take the Modi message back home and act as influencers in constituency after constituency.
A lot has changed in Varanasi in the last five years, for the better. The city is congested and crowded as ever, with major traffic snarls in many areas, but the road leading to the Dashaswamedh Ghat is cleaner. Gone are the garbage dumps, the rotting vegetables and flowers and the cow dung that made walking down the roads near Vishwanath temple and the ghats a nightmarish experience. Special stress has been given on riverfront development. The ghats are clean. The Prime Minister’s drive for a clean Varanasi had started from Assi Ghat at one end of the city. Spick and span, it’s a tourist spot now. In fact all the ghats have become visitor friendly. Locals say that it is perhaps for the first time in decades or more that the ghats’ steps near the water have become visible. Earlier, the stones were slippery with mud and moss. All of Varanasi’s ghats and the buildings there have been lit up beautifully, giving the city a sparkling waterfront. It’s a sight to behold from the Ganga, because of which evening river cruises have become a major tourist attraction. Boatmen speak of their income having risen as tourist footfall has increased, both domestic and international, primarily out of curiosity to see how the PM’s constituency has been transformed in the last five years. Surface cleaning of the river is conducted every day with dredgers, as a result of which the Ganga looks and smells cleaner. BJP insiders say that the biggest transformation in Varanasi has been of the mindset of the people, which is what the PM has been pushing for. “I have seen how locals prevent pilgrims from littering the river,” says a senior BJP politician, who wants to stay anonymous.
However, trenchant critics of the Prime Minister, such as the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, who has his own water testing laboratory, scoffs at the riverfront development taking place by saying that “cleaning of the ghats, lighting of the ghats and the activities at the ghats have nothing to do with Ganga cleaning”. He takes out reams of data to claim that Namami Gange, the government’s project to clean Ganga is a failure and that the problem of sewage discharge by the city into the river stays unresolved. When asked about this BJP leaders in Varanasi say that sewage treatment plants (STPs) have been built of 200 million litres per day (MLD) capacity to treat the approximately 180 MLD sewage that Varanasi discharges into the river and that the city’s sewage system is getting connected with the STPs.
Another visible change that has taken place is the phasing out of the overhead power lines. At least half of the city’s electric lines have been sent underground. Under the Urja Ganga project, gas pipelines are being laid for the supply of clean cooking gas for domestic consumption.
Healthcare is another area where a lot of importance is being given. Varanasi now has two cancer hospitals, out of which the one at Lahartara has been modernised. Another cancer hospital, the 352-bed Mahamana Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya Cancer Centre, which has been set up by the Tata Trusts, the Tata Memorial Centre and Banaras Hindu University, is about to start functioning. Existing hospitals are being expanded. Varanasi’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dr V.B. Singh reels off statistics about how the Prime Minister Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY), launched in October 2018, has already been able to enrol 2 lakh people in Varanasi district, out of whom 7,281 people have been provided treatment. When asked about complaints being heard from some states that the 24X7 helpline does not always elicit a response, Dr Singh is categorical: “Nothing like that happens here. Everything works here.”
Then of course bridges like the one in Ramnagar and the Balua-Chanhaniya bridge that were stalled for almost a decade and half, have been completed.
A milk processing plant has started functioning from Ramnagar industrial area.
A Trade Facilitation Centre and Crafts Museum was inaugurated earlier this year by the Prime Minister in Varanasi’s Badalalpur area. It is a huge, modern-looking building, which is yet to be fully functional and has a few textile stores where shopkeepers claim to sell products at a rate lower than that is available in the market.
The newly renovated Manduadih rail station in Varanasi, with its murals and waterfall and “airport-like look” has become—as this writer realised during a visit there on Tuesday evening—a tourist attraction thanks primarily to WhatsApp forwards, apart from a place for locals to spend their evenings and click selfies. A few important trains to Delhi and other places are now starting from Manduadih.
The first National Waterway between Varanasi and Haldia port in West Bengal has also started functioning, helping in the transport of goods and facilitating exports.
BJP leaders say that all this, and more, will add to Varanasi’s stature as the commercial, religious, tourism and medical hub for the whole of Purvanchal.
Of all the projects that have been undertaken in Varanasi, the most “revolutionary” and yet controversial is the Vishwanath Corridor. Some BJP leaders see in this “dream project” of the Prime Minister, the philosophy of Lord Shiva in action: unless there is destruction there cannot be creation. An area of around 25,000 sq metres between the Vishwanath temple and Manikarnika and Lalita Ghats on the Ganga is being cleared after demolishing old houses and shops. This Rs 600 crore project being executed by the UP government will ensure that the temple, until recently hidden from view in the maze of crumbling houses and dank and dark alleys, can be seen right from the ghats, apart from providing pilgrims with facilities and open space. According to Vishal Singh, the CEO of the project, “The whole area is very congested and the number of pilgrims during special occasions goes up to 4 lakh to 5 lakh people. Sometimes, people have to wait for a couple of days to get a darshan, during Shivratri or special days. Also, there was no public utility, there was no toilet or drinking water, there was no facility for first aid or giving proper medical care if somebody had a heart attack. So suraksha aur suvidha (security and facilities) for the pilgrims was the idea behind it.” The Shri Kashi Viswanath Temple Trust, which Singh heads, has bought all the buildings in the path of the corridor and is in the process of demolishing them. Singh says that everyone who has been made to shift from there has been paid double the market rate, as per law. An amount of Rs 16.54 crore has been paid to those who stayed there on rent, conducted businesses, and even were illegal encroachers. Another Rs 262 crore has been paid to owners of buildings. During the process of demolition, 53 temples have been found hidden inside the houses, and work is going on to restore them. Singh envisages the corridor as an open and green space with public facilities, library, etc. The area is covered in rubble right now, but the project is expected to be completed in a couple of years.
The controversy is because there is some unhappiness among those who have been made to shift and because one swamiji, Swami Avimukteshwaranand, a follower of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati has been accusing the Trust of demolishing temples. Vishal Singh refutes the claim: “Not a single temple has been demolished. Every demolition has been recorded and we have time lag videos, we have clicked every house and videographed them. Even during demolition if we come across any temple, we stop the work immediately. We then chisel out everything from the temple using manual labour.”
The Congress has made the Vishwanath Corridor into a major election issue, with speakers at the party’s public meeting at the Thana Chowk near the Vishwanath temple on Tuesday evening claiming that “Narendra Modi has destroyed 2,500 temples here”. The Congress is hoping to bag the votes of those who have been made to shift and also the traders in the area, while also fanning Hindu sentiments. But the consensus in the area is that “enough money has been paid, sometimes crores to those whose houses have been bought”, so there is no scope for complaint. “In fact, we will make more money once the corridor is completed because more pilgrims will come,” says a shopkeeper selling paan masala and other condiments at a stone’s throw from the venue of the meeting. In fact, any question to any Varanasi resident about the project is answered with the strong assertion, “There is nothing wrong with the project. It’s a very good thing that’s happening.”
The problem for both the Congress and the Mahagathbandhan is that they know that they do not have any chance of winning the seat. So the contest is now for reducing the victory margin of the incumbent MP—to ensure that he gets less than he got in 2014. Modi got 581,022 votes in 2014—56.37% of the total votes cast. Arvind Kejriwal came second with 209,238 votes (20.30%). Ajay Rai, who is the Congress candidate this time as well, got 75,614 votes (7.34%) and came third. The BSP got 60,579 votes (5.88%) and the SP came fifth with 45,291 votes (4.39%). According to the Congress and Mahagathbandhan (SP has fielded a nondescript candidate called Shalini Yadav who lost the mayoral poll for Varanasi in 2017 to the BJP) “even one vote less for Narendra Modi will be counted as his defeat”. It’s a classic “moral victory” scenario—Congress lost in Gujarat but had a “moral victory” because it managed to restrain BJP at 99.
Who comes second in the seat will depend on which way the Muslims vote. Last time they voted for Arvind Kejriwal. This time there is some talk that a few may vote for PM Modi as well, especially from the Muslim-dominated Madanpura, which gave him a rousing welcome when his road show passed through there the day before he filed his nomination. “Didn’t you see the welcome we gave him? So where is the question of not voting for him?” retorted a Muslim weaver who was manning his family’s store at the Trade Facilitation Centre at Badalalpur. However, on Wednesday afternoon, inside the congested Madanpura locality, the question whether Muslims would vote for the BJP this time was met with enigmatic smiles and the reply “we will vote for the winner this time”. Even after prodding they would not clarify their statement—if they meant Narendra Modi, the certain winner of Varanasi, or the Opposition, which they believe will win the general elections this year. “We will decide on the night of 18 May after word comes who is winning,” was the final reply. Varanasi goes to polls on 19 May.
As for the seats in the immediate neighbourhood, Varanasi is expected to have a direct impact on seats abutting the constituency—Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Machhlishahr and Chandauli. There is some speculation about the BJP’s prospects in Chandauli, from where sitting MP and UP BJP president Mahendra Nath Pandey is contesting. A drive through the rural areas of Chandauli showed there was dissatisfaction with Pandey. While the Yadavs, an SP vote bank, were completely arrayed against him, there were murmurs of discontent even among upper castes and some non Yadav OBCs, with the general complaint being “he never meets anyone”. Akhilesh Yadav has fielded Sanjay Chauhan, an OBC, from Chandauli, in a bid to woo the non Yadav OBCs from the BJP’s fold. But BJP leaders are certain that the strategy will not work because two Assembly segments in Chandauli, Ajagara (7 lakh voters) and Shivpur (5-6 lakh) are heavily urbanised and belong to Varanasi district and will vote like Varanasi does. Pandey, once a BHU student leader, belongs to Ajagara himself. In Mirzapur, Union minister and BJP ally Anupriya Patel’s constituency, the SP has fielded Ram Charitra Nishad, who was BJP MP from Machhlishahr. He left the BJP and joined the SP as he was denied ticket this time. The buzz on the ground is that Nishad is extremely unpopular, to the extent of facing public protests in Machhlishahr. Nishads are boatmen and have a heavy presence in Varanasi and its neighbouring seats, in fact all the way up to Gorakhpur. In Varanasi, the Nishads are going around with BJP flags on their boats, and say that they are completely with Narendra Modi. This is likely to have an impact on their voting pattern, not just in Varanasi, but also in Mirzapur and other areas of Eastern UP, all the way up to Gorakhpur.