#CampaignTrailwithFirstpost to Varanasi and Ghazipur unfolded to be a journey full of overwhelming sights, insights, contrasts and contradictions, and more question marks than full stops. We navigated the interiors of eastern Uttar Pradesh to meet the leaders of these constituencies and saw them battle the heat and dust of elections – up, close and personal. We also met the locals to understand their take on who will win the elections, and many other issues fundamental to their growth and survival. My first impression of the visit to both these constituencies was that the incumbents will return to the 17th Lok Sabha. But underpinning this impression was an old proverb and my belief that the devil is always in the detail.Seeing things, which are not apparently visible, come naturally to me.
As a ‘Tournalist’ on this trail, my aspiration was primarily to understand whether what was promised in 2014 has been delivered or not. I was keen to understand the election manifestos of the contenders of these constituencies for 2019. Is “Meri Kashi” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi fondly calls his constituency, truly Vikas Ke Path Per? Is Ghazipur, once known as “Apradh Ka Kendra”, on track to becoming “Pragatisheel Ghazipur”? Has Jayapur, the PM’s adopted village, missed its target of becoming a model village? I was looking forward to getting a sneak peek into the progress on infrastructure, water, sanitation, financial inclusion, public health, Ganga cleaning, and such other socio-economic issues.
I didn’t get all the answers.
But here is my narrative – of what I saw, heard, observed and experienced – of the phenomena called Varanasi – the impressions and sound bytes, which will stay with me for long.
When my father told me that he was taking me to Varanasi to experience elections, I had my self-doubts. I am a 13-year-old boy from south Delhi, who had seldom stepped out in the open.
My first impression of Varanasi was that of a culturally rich, but a not-so clean city. I had studied in detail about the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, MLAs, MPs and elections for my recent Grade 8 civics test and I assumed that I knew all about elections. It made me wonder aloud the need for me to go on this trip. What is that was left to be learnt?
Frankly, I was also dreading the soaring temperatures of Varanasi. Snobbish as I may sound, I am after all the typical metro teenager who moves from an air-conditioned car to an air conditioned building, I was, therefore, rather sceptical about this trip right from the outset.
The one thing I was looking forward to though was the rich flavours of, Varanasi, the world’s oldest city. I guess only the “foodie” in me was most excited about this #campiagntrailwithFirstpost.
I had always imagined that election rallies were conducted with the candidate giving a speech about how s/he would make h/his constituency better and how that would benefit the voters. And when s/he would leave in h/his fancy car, the voters would surround h/him while cheering for him, leading to a complete chaos. Would it be so? It remained seen to be believed.
Day 1 (May 3)
We landed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport in Babatpur, and went straight to the famous “Ram Bhandar” next to our hotel in Varanasi to savour the delicious “Samosa Chaat” and “Kachori”. I was glad that the trip started with food! It was the most divine samosa ever served with jalebi. And did I miss, mentioning Ram Lassi?
We arrived at the hotel, quickly got refreshed and met Kavita aunty, Srikant, Suraja, Kedar, Ajay uncle, Ananta and Souniya didi.
The first pit stop in the #campaigntrailwithfirstpost took us to the weavers’ colony at Lallapura.
On entering the colony, all we could hear was the deafening sound of the relentless rhythmic weaving of power looms. It was satisfying yet disturbing because of the loud noise.
Not only did we get to see how a Baranasi saree is weaved on the power loom, we also got some intriguing insights from the weavers. For example, the weavers said how till some time ago they couldn’t afford to pay their electricity bills, but now the Modi government is providing subsidised power, which has helped them immensely.
On further prodding, we got to know how one part of Varanasi was different from the other. Which government helped which type of weavers? What is the criteria on the basis of which the weaver community votes?
We got to know that for the weavers, the BJP government was rather supportive, whereas for designers the Congress was extremely beneficial.
We also learnt about the struggle of the weavers during the previous Congress rule.
Day 2 (May 4)
We left for the adjoining Ghazipur Lok Sabha constituency, which is located at about 80 km from Varanasi at 7 in the morning.
I was feeling a bit groggy because of the late night. But an encore at Ram Bhandar pepped me up for the day.
We attended sitting the BJP MP and Union minister Manoj Sinha’s rally. Sinha’s body language gave me an impression that he’s a doer for his constituency.
We had an intimate interaction with Sinha as well, in which he patiently answered all our questions without an iota of hesitation.
Sinha came across as a down-to-earth person. When we asked him if he would be in Delhi on May 23 – the day the election results will be announced -- he confidently said that he would be in his own constituency to celebrate with this family and friends.
On the issue of women’s health, he elaborated how sanitary pads were being distributed in villages. This made me wonder, how we take things for granted in a city where buying a sanitary pad means a visit to a shop and asking for it over the counter.
In villages and smaller towns, such access is still unheard of. I was suddenly reminded of the movie Padman.
We attended another Sinha rally, where we asked the youth what they thought about elections and if they had seen any development in their village. They recounted us about the spruced-up Ghazipur railway station, and they were very happy because now they could travel across the country without taking the trouble to go to neighbouring Varanasi. Ghazipur has emerged as a well-connected rail head. Also, Ghazipur is getting 18-20 uninterrupted hours of electricity, which is a major improvement under MP Sinha’s watch. The youth is also up to date with technology.
The women have access LPG tanks to prevent sickness caused by the smoke coming out of the traditional chullahs.
All these developments have taken place since Sinha was elected, and it seems that the BJP won’t stop governing Ghazipur.
As I was recording all these interactions on my iPhone, we were soon surrounded by people. The rural folks, too, bandied smartphones and were pretty much technologically on a par with me.
They were also rather amused by the equipment of the Firstpost team. I was quite irritated when I was surrounded by 25 people. But, my irritation was gone in a jiffy as these simple folks spoke about development in their village with wide-eyed wonder.
The Hi-Tech Ghazipur City Railway Station
We visited the Ghazipur City Railway Station, and it was a hi-tech station as well. It had free wi-fi and the shops accepted Paytm. How cool is that? It was such a clean station that my father literally lay on the platform. Unbelievable!
While returning to Varanasi we saw another rally taking place in a roadside village. We got out of the car as curiosity got the better of us. It happened to SP-SP candidate Afzal Ansari’s rally, who is taking on sitting MP Sinha on a BSP ticket.
On the sidelines of the rally, Ansari alleged to us the wrongs perpetrated by by BJP government and what all improvements and changes he promised to bring about in Ghazipur constituency
After the meeting, we went to a village on the outskirts of Varanasi and were treated to amazing eastern Uttar Pradesh delicacies for dinner.
Day 3 (May 5)
We woke up early to pay a visit to the sacred Kashi Vishwanath Temple. After offering our prayers, we headed to the under-construction Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, an archaeological marvel.
Later, in the morning, we met Shalini Yadav, the SP-BSP candidate for the Varanasi constituency, who is fighting on a SP ticket. She recounted how the locals felt about the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. Yadav, who recently defected to the SP from the Congress, alleged that the locals were upset with PM Modi because houses were demolished that housed temples.
We proceeded to the PM’s adopted village Jayapur, where we visited Atal Nagar, home to 14 Mahadalit families belonging to the Mushar caste, who were gifted free pucca houses by PM Modi. We interacted with a lady who was being cheated by a government official.
She narrated how she was being routinely shortchanged by the official and denied ration after fifth of every month. “The machine simply refuses to recognise my thumb,” she said in utter helplessness.
In the evening, we were taken on a Bajra on the Ganga against a setting sun. The Bajra ride was an undiluted fun amid the light evening breeze and rejuvenating my tired bones.
On the Barja
We soaked in the sights and sounds of the mesmerising evening Aarti on the iconic Dashashwamedh ghat. It was a sight, I had never experienced.
In the beginning, I thought this trip was going to be boring as hell because I never had any interest in politics. Or should I say I never found civics as a subject interesting enough, but surprisingly this trip gave me an experience of a lifetime.
Initially, I showed a lot of resistance to this trip. However, I came back richer. I am thankful to Firstpost for this amazing opportunity and to my father, Rahul Narvekar, for egging me on. I would never have known this much from just listening idle chatter on the couch.
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