Raga of rajneeti in the ghats of Benaras

Published : May 30, 2024 18:27 IST - 9 MINS READ

A boy dressed as the Hindu deity Lord Siva along the ghats of the River Ganga in Varanasi on May 12.

A boy dressed as the Hindu deity Lord Siva along the ghats of the River Ganga in Varanasi on May 12. | Photo Credit: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Dear Readers,

The ghats of the Ganga in the holy city of Benaras are mesmerising and hardly let you wander into the mundane, least of all into the politics of power.

The city charms you, its history as a melting pot of spirituality, history, and culture a calming influence. As Mark Twain said, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

In the serpentine alleys of the temple city, the strains of Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, the soul-stirring melodies of the Queen of Thumri Girija Devi, Pandit Kishan Maharaj’s thaap on the tabla, and the sitar strings of Pandit Ravi Shankar have momentarily yielded to the raga of rajneeti reverberating with the beat of campaigning.

To the city’s 88 ghats has been added a new ghat called NAMO Ghat. A resident at Dashashwamedh joked that this “election is between NAMO (Narendra Modi) and No Mo (No Modi)”. Modi is camping in Varanasi from May 26, hoping to create a ripple impact in the Lok Sabha seats adjoining Varanasi.

Mirza Ghalib in his Masnavi “Charag-e-dair” on Benaras, gives the city a higher position than China and says even Delhi looks at it with desire: “Ki mee aayad daawa gaah-e-laafash, Jahanabad aj bahar-e-tawafash [This is such a place of pride that even Delhi makes a round of it]”.

One of the first things Modi did upon taking over as Prime Minister in 2014 was to sign an agreement with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to transform Varanasi into a Kyoto-like smart city. The Prime Minister’s website says that with him at the helm of affairs in Kashi, the city is regaining aspects of its glorious heritage, while also developing itself to meet the requirements of the 21st century. However, the BJP’s campaign makes no reference to the Kyoto aspiration.

In Varanasi itself, it is a no-contest, as the one “Ma Ganga” beckoned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is contesting to win for the third time. For his rival, Congress State president Ajay Rai, it is bound to be a hat-trick of defeats (his victory would be nothing short of a miracle). Rai had contested from Varanasi in 2009 too, as the Samajwadi Party candidate, and the result was the same: he lost to Murli Manohar Joshi. However, this time he may have the satisfaction of being runner-up, improving on his consistent third-place finish in the earlier outings. To be sure, Rai is a five-term MLA, from Kolasla thrice as a BJP candidate and once as an independent, and from Pindra in 2017 as the Congress candidate. Of the five other candidates contesting here is 70-year-old Jamal Lari of the BSP. The popular mimicry artist Shyam Rangeela, had filed his nomination for the seat only for it to be rejected apparently over an oath not taken!

The remodelled Kashi Vishwanath corridor that leads to the Ganga draws appreciation, and its pièce de résistance is the light and sound show that attracts huge crowds till late at night. The neon lights of the corridor are in stark contrast to the glow from the smouldering pyres at the adjoining Manikarnika ghat, where bodies burn 24x7.

At the ghats, keeping “moksha” and Modi aside, it is Pandit Channulal Mishra, a leading light of the Kirana Gharana, who comes to mind for his soulful rendition: “Khele masaan me Holi, Digambar khele masaan me Holi/ chitta bhasm bhar jholi, Digambar khele masaan me Holi [Siva is playing Holi in the funeral ground, with a bag full of ashes, Siva is playing Holi in the funeral ground]”. The masaan and Siva are incomplete without a mention of Varanasi’s Aghoris, who are the followers of Baba Keena Ram of Benaras and are known for their Shiv sadhna (worship of Siva) and shav sadhna (worship of the corpse).

Several films have themed the burning ghats of Benaras and their keeper, the Dom Raja. Among them are the acclaimed Masaan (Cremation Ground, 2015) and the National Geographic documentary Death Along the Ganges River: The Story of God.

The Dom Raja in 2019, Jagdish Chaudhary, featured alongside Modi as one of the proposers of his nomination. Following his untimely death, he was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2020. The current Dom Raja, Atul Choudhary, joined Modi at the consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on January 22.

The Dom, or Halkhor, are at the bottom of the Dalit hierarchy and were treated as untouchable. They are known for their fighting spirit, and the BJP has wooed them assiduously. Likewise, the Nishads, who sail boats on the Ganga, have moved entirely from the BSP to the BJP lured by Modi’s “e-navik” satellite and electric boat offer.

Such accruals for the BJP helped Modi in 2019, when he won by 4.7 lakh votes with a 63.6 per cent vote share, improving on his 2014 vote share of 56.4 per cent. In the pre-Modi era, the victors in Varanasi polled 30-33 per cent of the vote. The only exception to this was former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar who won the seat for the Janata Party in 1977 with 47.9 per cent of the vote.

Nevertheless, the spirit of Amartya Sen’s argumentative Indian, more importantly the voice of dissent, is alive and well in, of all places, the South Varanasi Assembly segment that boasts the Kashi Vishwanath temple. It saw a close contest between the Congress and the BJP in both the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections.

The grievances are mainly of unkept promises (metro rail, ropeway, PNG pipeline). But there is no challenge to Modi here. Says Gaurav Tiwari, who runs a startup: “Over three lakh voters in Varanasi have always voted against Modi and before him, against the BJP. In 2014 when Arvind Kejriwal contested against Modi, he got the highest number of those votes. In 2019, they favoured Shalini Yadav of the SP. This time, without Kejriwal and without the SP, Ajay Rai is sure to get most of this vote. The fight could be bit closer this time, but nothing that will worry the BJP.”

The BJP has won Varanasi since 1991, except for 2004 when the Congress’ Rajesh Mishra won. Incidentally, Mishra joined the BJP on March 5, protesting against the Congress’ alliance with the SP.

Rakesh Singh, who is in the hotel business and flaunts his association with the RSS, however, claims a lot of development has happened in Varanasi ever since Modi came, and it has been a boom time for the hotel industry. “Earlier, there was power cut for 18 hours and we had to burn 20 litres of diesel daily to run our business. Now we have tourists even in the off-season.”

There is a relaxed approach to life among residents. As I get up after the conversation, I am entreated to stay on for some more time: “arre baitha”. The city is home to literary icons such as Munshi Premchand (he was born in Lamahi village) and poets such as Kabir Das (he was born in Lahartara, about 30 km away). The venerable Tulsidas left his mortal frame at Assi ghat, and a long hop away is Sarnath, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon after getting enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Besides, the Dalit saint Guru Ravidas was born at Goverdhanpur in Varanasi.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque controversy has divided Hindus and Muslims in the city, but history tells us that Benaras has always had a syncretic culture that transcended fragmented ideologies, echoing the voice of universality.

In fact, in electoral terms, the 14 per cent Muslim vote has had no effect on the outcome in Varanasi and it promises to be no different this time. “Muslims vote but they are in no position to impact the results,” says tyre shop owner Parvez, with an air of resignation. Their claim to fame is the embroidery work on the world-famous Benarasi sari, a tradition they have kept alive. Of course, there is the legend of Bismillah Khan, who refused US citizenship to remain in Benaras until his last breath. He was buried with his shehnai under a neem tree at Fatman graveyard in Sigra in old Varanasi, and the enchanting melody of Khan merged with the soul of Benaras, says Parvez.

In the absence of any communal element, the only mudda (issue) for the BJP and its supporters is Modi’s victory margin. “Yahan to ek tarfa hai. Baaki sab jagah gadbad hai [Here it is one sided, but everywhere else, it is a problem for the BJP],” says Rudra Narayan, who lives in Kamakhya in Varanasi. “Modi ji is still popular here, but people do not get down to fighting even if someone criticises him or the BJP.”

Indeed, the Modi fan club has gone stratospheric. It is not just Modi who believes he is a messenger of god. Vishal Shastri, a priest at Ahilyabai ghat is convinced about it. He says, “Modi is Ram and [Chief Minister] Yogi [Adityanathi] is Lakshman. Modi manushya nahin hain, kya divya roop hai [Modi is not a human being. What a divine look he has]. Arvind Kejriwal had contested from Varanasi in 2014, but he went to jail. And see Modi is contesting to win for the third time.”

Amit Mishra from Rampurva Godoliya turns the gaze down to earth. “Ganga maai pahel itna saaf nahin rahti [Ganga was not so clean earlier]. Animal carcasses used to float in the river. Development is happening now. More tourists are coming. Boats are running full.”

After filing his nomination Narendra Modi had said, “Na mai yahan aaya hoon, na mujhe kisi ne yahan bheja hai, mujhe to Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai [Neither I have come here on my own, nor anyone has sent me, I have been called here by Mother Ganga]. While the remark evoked sharp barbs from the opposition, Modi’s mission was clear: consolidate the BJP’s performance in a large number of seats in north India through this seat of Hinduism.

One of Ghalib’s Persian couplets describes Benaras thus: “Ibadat khana-e-nakusianast, hamana kaba-e-hindustanast [Benaras is the temple of us conch-shell bearers, Benaras is our Kaaba].”

To those championing the cause of a monolithic religious identity, there can be no better response than this.

Thank you for reading Poll Vault, our election-ready newsletter. Watch this space for the results, and lots more! Until then...

Anand Mishra | Political Editor, Frontline

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