Banaras Diary

How Benaras has turned into a city-sized TV panel debate

With the energies of all the major parties focused on Varanasi, it has become impossible to have a conversation in the city that is not about politics.

When Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges imagined Varanasi, he thought of a place false and impenetrable, “like a garden traced on a mirror”. If only Borges was around to see what modern politics has done to the city he dreamed of. "Impenetrable" is not a word one would use at the moment.

A few days ago, Nivedita Menon mentioned feeling as if every resident of Banaras is prepared to answer the kaun jeetega question about the impending elections. Since then, it has become even worse: you no longer even have to ask. Now before you have a chance to talk politics, residents begin to ask you, “Aap kiske samarthan mein hain?” Who are you endorsing?

Varanasi has become the focal point of the 2014 election, braiding together every storyline that has played out over the course of the last year — a declining Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party divided between Hindutva and development, a surging Aam Aadmi Party — and coupling it with all the other cliches of India’s oldest city. All this focus has only been intensified by the stature of the two big candidates contesting from here, turning the whole city into one large Times Now panel discussion.

Ground Zero

They say Pappu ki dukaan, a chai stall in Assi Ghat with a renowned lemon tea, used to be ground zero for any political discussion you want to have in Varanasi, whether a domestic issue or an international one. But ever since Pappu pledged his support to the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, those of more liberal persuasion have moved across the road to Poi ki dukaan.

But Banarasi politics aren’t confined just to famous chai shops, at least not this time around.

Begin in the shadow of Ravidas Gate with Keshav Paan Bhandar, often considered the city’s best paan place — which is no small achievement, considering the Banarasi love for the betel leaf and nut. Between occasional breaks to spit, Kailash, a trader, is complaining about inflation to anyone who cares to listen.

“You know how much money I spend just getting on my scooter to come here for paan?” he said. “See, Banarasis have to go to certain places for paan, they can’t go just anywhere, but the Congress has made it such that you have to think about petrol prices before worrying about quality paan.”

Across the road, at one of the four Pehelwan shops, each of which claims to be the original source of the best Banarasi lassi — a special sweet preparation served in a kulhad that includes floating malai and a generous helping of rabri on top — owner Manoj Yadav is making his Modi support evident.

“We’re the first here, the original Pehelwan,” Yadav whispers, then leans back and says more confidently. “We’ve been here for generations, and we’ve also been BJP supporters for all that time. Ab ki baar…”

On an alleyway leading off from this road, closer to the Ganga and its legendary ghats, Sandeep Kumar Gaur is flipping a coin into the air while his friends, all wearing Modi-for-PM topis, watch. “Heads it’s Modi, tails it’s Kejri,” Gaur yells, before shrieking in delight after the coin lands with tails up.

When I ask him if he’ll try best of three, he smiles. “If I tried to vote ‘best of three’, the policeman will slap me on my face. One vote, one flip, the rest is kismet,” he says, before rattling off an AAP slogan for the benefit of his BJP-supporting friends. “Chalega jhadoo, chalega dhool, na rahega kamal, na rahega phool.

It isn't a road show

By the late afternoon, with the sun still beating down on the crowds, all the competitive politicking starts to get physical.

The BJP has called for its cadres to turn up at Benares Hindu University to protest the denial of permission to Modi for a rally in the city, which they promptly do. From a painted Shiva with a trishul to hordes of local Modibhakts who briefly chuck bottles at a Trinamool Congress car driving through, the front gate of the famous old university is temporarily painted saffron. Until, that is, word comes that Modi will be travelling through the old city — only in a closed car, which meant it wouldn’t technically qualify as a roadshow.

Not bothered with technicalities, Rapid Action Force and Central Reserve Police Force companies line the streets from BHU all the way to Modi’s campaign office, while all along the residents of the city come out to catch a glimpse of the man who wants to be both their member of parliament and prime minister. The saffron squads are now even more numerous.

At one point fairly early into Modi’s route, AAP have got permission for a jansabha featuring their MP candidate from Amethi, Kumar Vishwas. Which means, soon enough, white topis have started to mingle among the saffron ones. Just a little later, this has turned into competitive sloganeering and some angry back-and-forth, forcing CRPF to place themselves right in the middle.

Despite some pushing and shoving, peace is maintained, but only until the saffron fervours climaxes with the passage of Modi past the AAP sabha, leaving one AAP supporter in a car with glass all across his front seat after his window was bashed in, and CRPF officers having to drag rowdies of both sides away.

Bhojpuri film hero

Once the motorcade has passed and the sun has set, people settle into their prime time political debates. In Lanka chowk, Amit Rai — who sheepishly tells me he is a “Bhojpuri film hero” — is fighting a lonely battle.

A crowd of ten Modibhakts has surrounded his motorbike, but not because they recognise him from the movies. Instead, it’s because he is defending the Congress. “What they’ve done with Modi is a little like film promotion. They’ve managed to make a product out of him,” Rai says. “But movies are only about getting people on seats for the first few days, or at least just Friday. If this movie has been promoted enough, we’ll be stuck with it for the next five years.”

Rai is suddenly interrupted by the seventy-something Annapurna Chakravarti, who is not happy to hear good things about the Congress party in its current state. “Suno beta, what has the Congress done for me in all this time? I have seen three girls die, and yet I get no pension, no dole, no loan, no handout. What has the Congress done?”

The film actor tries in vain to tell Chakravarti that Varanasi has three out of five BJP assembly members, a BJP mayor and a BJP member of parliament, but she’s having none of it. “I have always voted BJP, and I always will, but I will still complain about all of those useless people they send us,” Chakravarti insists. “Now if Indira was around, us poor widows would have had something to keep us alive.”

Even up on the waterfront, in Vaatika Pizzeria on Assi Ghat — home, I was told, to the best apple pie in India, although the slice I had was a bit too sugary — election discussions were on the menu. “It depends on how quickly Modi can achieve something, particularly with the economy,” says Norimasa Tahara, a journalist for Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. “See, our President Shinzo Abe was able to do things with the economy in a short time, and that is what can keep people happy.”

Right by the water, on the steps of Prabhu Ghat, Deoras is starting to sound like AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal. “They’re all useless, even the jhaaduwala,” he tells his friends who are trying to defend AAP. “Why did he have to leave such a big seat in Delhi?”

A boatman himself, Deoras says he is going to abide by the decision that he made along with a majority of those in his community. “We have all, which means about 85,000 of us, decided to vote NOTA [none of the above],” he said. “No one really does anything for us, whatever they may say about the Ganga, and the fact remains that the public will count the NOTA votes. For big netas like those fight here, it will be equal to a chappal right on their face.”
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