“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tease out of me,” Bhattacharya says, when I push him to explain what is new this time around. “In 1977 the slogans were different, that is certainly true.”
Bhattacharya is known for being knowledgeable on all things Banaras — he is a visiting professor at the Banares Hindu University and was being interviewed by, of all things, Swedish Television on the day I met him at his creaking office near Dasashwamedh Ghat. And as far as he is concerned, all this talk of change in Varanasi is no different from the noises made by politicians every few years for the last four decades.
He offers a tart analogy to explain his point. “In the early ‘60s, we had a very different way of selling condoms. Now they’re sold as having fruit flavours. We have fruit condoms. That’s all that has changed: the marketing,” he says. “Go ask the voters. They’ll tell you there was a really nice poster, a very nice hoarding, some 3D picture. This is but the natural progress of technology. And it is the product of better marketing. But nothing has really changed.”
Bhattacharyya considers the Ganga a prime example. Since 1984, he says, all the big leaders have made their way to Varanasi and promised to do something about the river. Yet the water is still unclean and the river is crying out for help. “The fact is just flowing there,” he says, gesturing to the murky river, a few hundred feet away from his office.
But Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi and his party attached great significance when picking Varanasi, I insist. Won’t that mean he will have to improve things in the city? “Look into history, or just look around you, there have always been a number of people coming from outside,” he says. The current member of parliament “Murli Manohar Joshi was an outsider, and he did nothing for the city for five years.”
Bhattacharya doesn’t believe in the great clamour for an alternative either, whether that means Modi mania or jumping on the jhaadubandwagon. What might convince him would be if 80% of the voters come out to press the buttons on election day. A number around 60% would be more of the same.
“This is not Rome, where you can have a Nero playing music while the city burns, and then rebuilding it afterwards,” Bhattacharyya says. “The city only needs a little help, and whoever can offer it that will be remembered. But unfortunately, India has not seen much change for 60 years. The vehicle is outdated, even though there have been some good drivers.”
He is even dismissive of suggestions that Varanasi will suffer from having been involuntarily thrusted into the political limelight, in such a way that it was impossible to talk about any other subject for at least the last week. “By the next day, the day after elections, things will go back to normalcy,” he says. “Varanasi will move on.”
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