And as Modi’s procession snakes through Varanasi, it seems all of
the city’s people are bathed in
saffron and trying to catch a
glimpse of their leader.
Mothers cradling snot-nosed
toddlers from ramshackle multistorey buildings that look like
they might collapse on touch.
Wives with their saris pallus
over their heads and held
Families crowding balconies
of middle-class housing societies, of rich bungalows that
would pass off as Bollywood
Everyone is wearing either a
Modi cap, or waving saffron
flags, or wearing saffron.
Through streets that have
open sewers running by their
side — lined with liberal
amounts of bleach for Modi’s
coming — the mass of saffron
accompanies a man who has
come to symbolize polarization
for some, development for others.
In one stretch of the 1.5-mile
roadshow, the crowd thins a
bit. “This is their (Muslim)
area,” a local journalist in one
of the two media trucks preceding Modi’s tells you.
Even in front of large a mosque, the faithful are out trying to catch a glimpse of the
man of the moment. They are not wearing
saffron, though, as the very few visible
Muslims in the mass of delirious humanity
accompanying Modi’s roadshow are.
Everywhere you look, people are showering flowers. Everywhere you look, people
are in Modi t-shirts, Modi caps, Modi
swashes, Modi saris, waving the exact same
cardboard cutout of Modi with his hands
pumped into a karate fist position, people
smiling, waving saffron flags, dancing,
beating all manner of drums, shouting.
“Modi. Modi. Modi. Rozi roti kamana
hai, Modiji ko lana hai. Sonia jiski
mummy hai, woh sarkar nikammi hai.
Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi. Har har
Mahadev. Ab ki bar Modi sarkar.”
Many have waited for more than 3 hours.
It is a sea of saffron, and looks every bit a
wave, even if manufactured through mega
management (which political rally isn’t?).
It is an impressive show of strength
through the streets of Varanasi — where
smells of piss, dung, sweat, cheap liquor,
paan and flowers mingle.
“Sir, you tell me,” says a driver in Varanasi
the day after. “There is so much poverty
around, people live from day to day. How
can they afford to spend an entire day with
any politician? They were given money, saf-
fron clothes, carted from and back to the
outskirts in buses.”
He agrees that the people are hungry for
development. What is development to
him? “The poor should get jobs, the hungry
should get food, there should be good
roads, there should be rule of law, what
else, sir,” he asks back.
Who will he vote for? “Our locality people
will sit down and decide, three or four days
before the elections. There are a lot of
Harijans (the term given by Mahatma
Gandhi for ‘untouchables’, now Dalits, the
lowest rung in the caste hierarchy, who are
traditionally not too keen on the BJP ) in
our area too. Ajay Rai has a good reputa-
tion. If anyone goes to him and says I can’t
afford my daughter’s wedding, he gives
money from his pocket. He is a religious
man, too, his Durga Puja is very famous.”
In this temple city, that seems to matter
more than Rai’s criminal past, or his gun-
“Modi is a liar,” says Yugal Kishore, businessman cum devotional singer, getting off his scooter to
talk to you, a tad disappointed you are not
toting a television camera, near the Assi
Ghat. “He is not telling people how he gets
the money to run his campaign through
Is he for Kejriwal?
“He is an honest person. We cannot forget
his spark so easily,” Kishore replies, while
plugging his album (“Krupa Karo
Hanuman, it’s a hit, you can find it on
“Look at the campaign strategies he initi-
ated, the cap, the uniform, all that you saw
in the BJP rally, who started these things?
Because of Kejriwal’s curtailing of power
tariff in Delhi, power tariff hike in UP and
Bihar was halted. He is also short, like most
great men are, like Sachin Tendulkar. Mera
hi sirf 4 inch zyada ho gaya (I missed
greatness by 4 inches).”
Wit shines through most conversations in
Varanasi, even if they are political debates.
“Yes, there were a lot of people at Modi’s
rally. I heard even Ram didn’t get this kind
of reception when he returned after vanquishing Ravan,” says a Modi detractor in a
Varanasi club. “And somebody tell me what
is this Gujarat model please.”
“It is better than the Amethi (longtime
constituency of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s
family) model,” quips back a Modi fan.
“And who do we vote for then? Ajay Rai?
Such a nice and clean man he is, no?”
Detractor shoots back. “Yes, and Amit
Shah (Modi’s former Gujarat home minis-
ter and present Uttar Pradesh in-charge
who is barred from entering Gujarat
because of serious charges of extrajudicial
killings) is such a nice man too, no?”
“Modi’s rally was just spectacular. I was
there too. But I will vote for Kejriwal. He
should not feel his voice has been lost,”
pipes in a third.
“Arre but tell me, why does Kejriwal lie so
much?” shoots back the Modi fan. “He says
he doesn’t have more than three shirts.
Come on, he was an income tax official,
surely he can afford a few more shirts?”
“There will of course be differing views,”
says the Kejriwal fan. “But this beating up
people if they criticize Modi (the Aam
Aadmi Party’s Somnath Bharti was appar-
ently beaten up because he said Modi ke
muh pe bhi jhadu lagega, Modi too will get
a smack of the broom, the AAP’s election
symbol) is it good for democracy?”
Everyone you speak to knows the candi-
dates’ background, traits, even election affi-
davit declarations. They can give you les-
sons in contemporary political history.
They are politically aware enough to be
journalists. Scratch that; they are more
politically aware than many journalists.
And yet, in this city where death is supposed to mean salvation from the vicious
cycle of life, squalor and poverty — the kind
that will make you wince — are everywhere. One of the many contradictions of
Varanasi. One of the many contradictions
of Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the
maximum number of lawmakers to
Parliament and yet has remained hungry
The banks of the Ganga can fill the most cynical skeptic with a feeling hard to label with words.
Badal and Sahil Sawhney
Muslim boys watch Narendra Modi’s rally through the windows of a mosque.
PHOTOGRAPHS: SUMIT BHATTACHAR YA