At the Jain Ghat in Varanasi on the west bank of the Ganga, boatman Lakshman Sawhney won’t tell you who he will vote for.
How does it matter, he asks, busy drawing his fishing net
with his sons, 10-year old Badal and 7-year-old Sahil,
whose teeth shine white in contrast to their grime blackened faces, as the waters of the Ganga — which seems filthy
enough to give you skin disease if you dip your hand into it
— lap around their boat.
But then, this is no ordinary river – neither scientifically,
nor spiritually, or politically. The Ganga cleanses organic
waste 15 to 25 times faster than any other river in the
world. A walk along its banks can fill even the most cynical
skeptic with a feeling tough to label with words.
And for anyone who wants to rule the world’s largest
democracy, the banks of the Ganga must approve.
“Divide the Hindus and Muslims,” Sawhney says, voice
dripping contempt. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? I will
give my vote to whoever gives me money to repair my boat.”
Shamim Kiani, with henna-dyed hair and beard and evidently Muslim, who has come to buy his daily fish from
Sawhney, is more Uttar Pradesh-like: Ready to share his
Ajay Rai — Bharatiya Janata Party legislator turned
Samajwadi Party leader turned Congress party challenger
to Narendra Modi from Varanasi — will get his vote, Kiani
Varanasi’s roughly 280,000 Muslims hold a crucial key to
the parliamentary constituency’s ballot box fortunes. If
their votes are split, Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate,
will romp home in this city of a little more than 1.6 million
If they vote as a bloc (unlikely because there are Shia-Sunni divisions), the carnival frenzy of jubilation that
Varanasi saw earlier in the day at Modi’s nomination-filing
ceremony — that left journalists and the common man
grappling for superlatives — could prove premature.
“He is a good man,” Kiani declares about Rai, who is
known to fly into a fit of rage befitting his bahubali — that
UP-Bihar euphemism for goon — background if anyone
throws the rulebook at him at Varanasi airport. “Even if you
go to his house at 2 am with your problems, he will listen to
you. He has done a lot for Varanasi.”
After Kiani leaves with the fish, Sawhney grins: “He is
Muslim, he is just giving you his spiel. I am going to the
other side of the river, want to come along?”
The other side is a sandbank. It is evident Sawhney wants
to show you something, so you hop onto his boat.
Halfway across the Ganga, he suddenly says, “Hindu will
vote for Hindu only, no?”
Aren’t all four Varanasi member of Parliament hopefuls
— Modi, Rai, the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal and
the Samajwadi Party’s Kailash Chaurasia — Hindu?
“I will vote for the new,” Sawhney says, smiling at the
mention of Modi. “Give him a chance to rule.”
At the sandbank, Sawhney force feeds you cucumbers the
size of snakes, and small musk melons, fresh and sweet. A
part of the sandbar — that vanishes during the rains when
the Ganga puts on weight — has been turned into small
farms by Varanasi’s boatmen.
“This is our land,” Sawhney declares. “It has always been.
We work six months a year here, backbreaking work, and
grow our own food. But they won’t let the poor live. The
Forest Department says this land is theirs; that we cannot
farm here. That we cannot put up these temporary parti-
tions. If we don’t protect the crop from the waters, nothing
will grow here.”
He points to the other side, the Varanasi that has wowed
people for thousands of years.
“We have always lived and died on those ghats. Our forefathers ferried Ram, Lakshman and Sita across these
waters. But now (since 1985) the government says we cannot grow our own food here. How does it matter who comes
to power? Does anyone listen to the poor?”
“Talent and personality,” replies Satya Maharaj, a priest with one of the innumerable temples and religious schools that dot the ghats in Varanasi,
when asked about why he considers Narendra Modi a very
“Daivik shakti hai (It is a god given power),” he adds. “It
is god’s mercy. Even children are eager to see Modi. Why?
What do they know? It is because he has come to symbol-
ize some feelings. Hope. Ram rajya aise hi ata hai (This is
how god’s will comes to earth).”
Is it because Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — as always
— has promised to build the temple in Ayodhya?
“No,” Maharaj replies emphatically. The small gathering
around him agrees. It’s not a temple, but development that
is key, they chorus.
“Even our Muslim brothers will vote for Modi,” Maharaj
says. “I speak to them, I know that 10 percent of Muslims
will vote for Modi. People’s feelings have become one with
Like the posters of Sabarmati riverfront and Dwarka
temple tourism that you can find across Varanasi, most
people you speak to seem to think Gujarat is the promised
land of milk and honey.
“Iam here for Modi, not BJP,” says Robin Jaiswal, sporting a Narendra Modi cap and Modi t-shirt, who says he is studying chartered accountancy.
He and his friend Anurag Verma, also in Modi cap and t-shirt, are among the hundreds of thousands of people who
have thronged the streets of Varanasi to cheer Modi on as
he files his nomination, April 24.
“Because Modi has that potential to bring my country to
that level that will affect the whole world, okay? We have all
the facilities, all the brains, but the thing is our leaders are
doing politics with their vote bank,” Jaiswal says. “They say
Modi will benefit the Adanis, Ambanis. I want to ask, when
the Adanis and Ambanis set up industries, who will benefit
from the jobs generated? Everyone knows Modi’s track
record with Gujarat.”
It is an extraordinary spectacle, watching Modi’s march.
From the minute his helicopter appears on the sky over the
Banaras Hindu University, he is greeted with the kind of
cheers you would hear when Sachin Tendulkar walked into
Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, or Sourav Ganguly into
Kolkata’s Eden Gardens.
The stream of people crowding every statue garlanding
pit-stop Modi is to make in the city has turned into floodwaters straining at the levees.
Modi, magic, and the
paradoxes of Varanasi
Sumit Bhattacharya attends Narendra Modi’s nomination rally
in the temple city, and finds a people yearning for change, yet torn
between affiliations and ambition
Narendra Modi’s rally snakes through Varanasi. SUMI T BHATTACHAR YA