Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to win his second term from Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency without much challenge, what then is there to write about the place? Surprisingly, there is much to write about. There is heated debate about the Modi impact on the ancient city.
The cab driver draws our attention to the widened roads, to the new lamp-posts in the city though he falls silent as we run into a traffic jam. There are more cars, more autorickshaws. What was there in April 2014 and which had disappeared in March 2019 are the rickshaws. The electric-rickshaws have taken their place. Both the autorickshaw and the electric-rickshaw drivers still fear the lathi-wielding policemen because they know they get a blow on their vehicles and on their arms before they are asked anything. But the police appeared more restrained.
Common, collective muteness
The only bit of change that can be seen is between Lalita Ghat and the Vishwanath temple, where scores of buildings have been demolished after paying generous compensation amounting to crores of rupees to the owners. There is rubble all around. The tourists use the uneven, muddy pathway as though it is beneath their pious dignity even to ask the reason for the broken houses standing all around them and numerous temples standing in the dug-up place. At one of the tea-stalls where the local wits gather mornings and evenings, there is heated debate about the rights and wrongs of it. But nothing more.
The surprising thing is that the demolition and reconstruction work had begun a few months ago, and no one is bothered whether it will be an issue in the election. The residents and shopkeepers who have been displaced murmur their disapproval and their displeasure but they have moved to their newly-assigned points without much ado. The few who argue against the demolition as violating the character of the city have not approached the courts nor have they tried to win public support for their cause. They say in a resigned note that the government will do what it wants to, and there is no way of stopping it.
A policeman at one of the checkpoints to the Vishwanath temple when asked what he feels about the changes says that it is Lord Vishwanath who rules the city, and all others are mere wayfarers, including political leaders. His ambiguous answer leaves the impression that he is not a cheerleader of candidate Modi in Varanasi.
You walk through the rubble and razed homes, and then through small clearance and again through the narrow lanes to the Vishwanath temple from Lalita Ghat. The talk is that the lanes will soon be history and that the temple will be visible from the Lalita Ghat, and the riverfront will be seen from the temple. On the way, one can see the domes of the Gyanvapi mosque built during Aurangzeb’s reign after the old temple structure had been demolished around 1669. The present Vishwanath temple was built in 1780 by Rani Ahalyabai of Holkar in Madhya Pradesh. It remains a flashpoint between the two communities of Hindus and Muslims, but it lies latent and rarely does it flare up. One of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds in Varanasi is that the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) along with its affiliate, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), will be raking up the issue and create an Ayodhya-like situation once the structures around the temple and mosque are cleared and an open ground is created.
Sanitising the past
The ghats have been partially cleaned and the Ganga is not yet satisfactorily clean even in Varanasi, and Hindu pilgrims ride to the other bank where the water is relatively clean to take their holy dip. But the waterfront buildings which had come up in the lasts two centuries still stand. But there does not seem to be an urban renovation and restoration plan that will preserve the old architectural styles of the city marking the passing of centuries while building new ones. Urban and historical aesthetics does not seem to bother the local authorities or the state government. Says haveli-turned-inn owner who is also a former academic in visual arts that the Mughal style buildings and paintings in Benaras are disappearing and it is a huge cultural loss to the historic city. There is an awareness and concern about the historic heritage of Varanasi, which seems to elude the politicians, including its current Member of Parliament (MP), Prime Minister Modi.
The attempt to introduce bigger cruise boats in the river has been opposed by the boatmen, who belong to the community of Mallas, and boatman Vishnu narrated that Prime Minister Modi had promised that he would protect the interests of the boatmen of Varanasi. Vishnu blamed Chief Minister Adityanath and Union Waterways Minister Nitin Gadkari for attempting to bring in the big cruise boats to Varanasi.
No one is blaming Modi for not transforming Varanasi into a smart city. But the city is changing on its own and at its own pace. One of the interesting examples of how it is transforming itself can be seen in the name of the Western style confectionary called Chocolate Heaven on one side of the road and an Indian style sweets shop called Ksheersagar on the other side. There was already a McDonalds in Varanasi in 2014 and the eating joints have only grown. There is the Sparrow Café near Assi Ghat where home-prepared food is advertised.
When scholars sing
But there is also fear hanging in the air, whether it is the garrulous salesmen in the saree shops or academics who love to hold forth. The saree salesmen say that Modi has done a lot of good and that he is going to win and when pressed to answer how their business was doing, they would start grumbling that the sales have gone down. But they cannot bring themselves to blame Modi’s economic policies.
They clam up, and their eulogy for the prime minister is buried in their silence. The academics are more self-conscious of the situation. They speak only on condition of anonymity and they are not unqualified critics of all that the Modi government has done. They believe that some of the programmes, especially the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, are more broad-based than their predecessors, the Indira Awas Yojana in PMAY’s case. But they agree that there has not been any radical change in the quality of life of the marginalized sections of society. There are more concerned with the growing intolerance in the campus and outside. If they were to speak their mind and they would be in trouble if they were identified. They see the rise and rise of right-wing Hindu ideology, and they think it is worse than the intolerance displayed by the dominant Leftist ideologues in the campus in their heyday.
One of them says that all top positions in the universities and educational institutions are entrusted to committed RSS folk. But there is a difference. For example, the former vice-chancellor of Benares Hindu University (BHU) was a proud RSS man who also boasted that he did no research after his M.A. But even the BJP government – the BHU is a central university – found it difficult to support him in the job, and he was replaced by a right-wing academic with distinction in science. Asked about the interference of BJP in campus politics, a local office-bearer said that the party kept away from it. But he said that government does interfere in the campus. “Government toh government hai (Government is government)”, he exclaimed. This is the story of Modi raj in Varanasi.