Varanasi: Vinaash or Vikas? Confessions of a Tournalist

#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.

It’s been five years since the Modi wave swept the nation. A lot has happened, a lot hasn’t happened, a lot has been corrected and a lot has been wronged. What is vikas (development) for some, is vinaash (destruction) for others? Which side is right, who is wrong, what’s going to keep my boat afloat, making me cast my vote. These were the thoughts racing through my head as must have been the 900-plus million voters who cast their vote to make who will be the 15th Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy.

With all this in the backdrop, an abiding love for armchair politics and a chance conversation with a dear friend who had stumbled upon an advertisement on #campaigntrailwithFirstpost, before we knew we were on a flight to Varanasi. The prospect of visiting Varanasi, one of the most intriguing cities as a wannabe journalist in the context of the 17th general elections and get a firsthand look and feel of the constituency that voted PM Modi to the 16thLok Sabha, was a mouthwatering prospect. Yes, we have all heard of the concept of citizen journalism and we have all participated in it in some form or the other.

But when we went through the plan of this visit, I was convinced that this was never done before and, if anyone who has even an iota of interest of politics and how it moves India, then this is the experience no money can buy.

So, when B V Rao, editor-in-chief, Firstpost, first addressed us as Tournalists, we got a drift of the drill he was going to put us through and at the end of four days of the campaign trail, I concluded that how lame, lazy and overrated the concept of citizen journalism is. This is the real deal, and it’s certainly not for the fainthearted.

Anyone who has even the faintest of idea of what Indian politics is all about, understands and knows the strategic importance of Uttar Pradesh at national politics. That all roads to the PMO come via UP is a foregone conclusion, and PM Modi was no exception. What was fascinating though is how a man who has derived his entire political identity and political capital from Gujarat has swiftly moved it to ‘Meri Kashi’.

The first impressions

The first sighting of Varanasi would make you believe that the ancient city seems to have been shaken out of its slumber and making its way to becoming a modern and international city. My first impression of the city from 2008 was vastly different from what it has transformed today. The airport from a tin shed with an apology of a baggage conveyor belt, now wears the all-glass-and-steel look. The road from the airport to the city centre now sports an autobahn-like look and feel and allows you to cruise into the city in less than half an hour, a sea change from the standard two hours it used to take not too long ago. The roads in the city are smooth, adorn neat white lane markings, aesthetic period street lamps with LED lighting. However, what hasn’t changed is the way people drive and walk around on the streets. It’s still as chaotic as it was in 2008.

The weavers’ wand & woes

The minority Muslim community is a significant 30 per cent block vote in Varanasi’s scheme of things. Both from a religious as well as an occupation point of view. Elections have been won and lost here depending on which way this block has voted. Traditionally, a Congress fortress was breached by the BJP in 2014 on the back of election promises of availability of power, market access and a training institution in the form of Deendayal Hastakala Sankul to give a shot in the arm to a trade that was staring at extinction on the back of automation. The PM was quick to lay this foundation shortly after he came to power in November 2014, and has also managed to deliver it in four years.

We spent an evening with leaders from this trade and got a nuanced view of not just this community from the Benarasi saree trade, but also listened those engaged in all three aspects of the sector – the weavers, designers and traders. A walk through the lanes and you realise that automation has taken this age-old tradition of handloom to powerloom by storm. Every household is clattering away with machines that are churning out sarees in hours as opposed to sarees that would take days to complete. If anyone in the city has borne the brunt of demonetisation & GST, it is this lot. They were the first ones to get affected and will probably be the last ones to come out of it. But the amazing part is that they were not opposed to the idea of demonetisation and GST, their only grouse is with the implementation. How will this craft survive the onslaught of artificial intelligence and machine-learning and power loom execution? Where does human labour fit in this equation? In case, the second term does happen for Modi, he needs to keep an eye out on skill development because just a building dedicated to this trade won’t be enough to revive its fortunes and encourage the next generation to be still associated with it. The last thing you want is Swiggy and Zomato to cause the demise of this industry just because it pays more than what their craft could ever compensate them.

Meeting the Davids

This was one of the most fascinating aspects of the many sides of the story we got to uncover on this trip. You don’t get an opportunity to meet the candidates who are contesting not just against the PM but also a personality like Modi in an intimate almost one-on-one setting. Both Ajay Rai of the Congress and the ping-pong candidate Shalini Yadav from the SP-BSP mahagathbandhan were articulate and have strong points of view on the burning issues of Varanasi and how an outsider would never ever understand and appreciate what Benaraspan (the Varanasi way of life) is all about.

The narrative was, of course, the one that suited them the best, but when I reflected on the conversations, it seemed like a narrative that was not in sync with aspirations of a New India. It was laced with emotion, local sentiments, rubbishing the visible development to the naked eye as cosmetic etc.

Perhaps, you can tell that they have more to gain at a personal level through sheer association of the mega rival and the favour they are pulling off for their masters, all for one to be returned later.

A quick visit to the neighbouring Ghazipur, and a chance meeting with Afzal Ansari, the elder brother of don Mukhtar Ansari, contesting on a BSP ticket against his BJP rival and incumbent Manoj Sinha also revealed the same sentiment. The same old caste-religion divide, demonetisation, GST, subsidy. The commonality of all the three contestants was that they had all the data and rhetoric to combat the government but no concrete plans for their constituency. Asked how the Congress would revive the weavers’ plight, the quick template response was Nyay. What is also going to be interesting is how the caste calculus of UP mahagathabandhan going to play out. While, we were attending a rally of Afzal Anasari at a Yadav-dominated village, I had quick chat with a section of the locals.

No doubt, it was an impressive turnout, but the interesting aspect was when one of them said, Haan Bhanja aaur Bua ek saath to aaye haai lekin haathi pe mohar lagana thod jam nahi raha haai (Though Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have come together, it’s still no fun to vote for elephant, Mayawati’s symbol). This was a telling statement that caste arithmetic alone can’t win a candidate an election. It is a forgone conclusion in my mind that both in Ghazipur and Varanasi it will be the BJP all the way. What will be the margin of victory? That’s the only unanswered question.

Indiana Jones and the Lost City

The controversial Kashi Vishwanath Corridor has to be one of the most fascinating examples of urban development. It’s almost China-like in its execution – ‘if it’s in the way, then it must go’ kind of vision and I am not commenting on whether it’s right or wrong. Before the visit to the site, I did read up about the project. If the master plan video is anything to go by, then there is at least a vision that’s different and one that is global. Kashi Vishwanath shrine is an iconic temple, and the importance of Kashi stems from this very temple. In my previous visit to the shrine, I remember being shepherded into the shrine through a serpentine queue which took anywhere between two and three hours to negotiate. The only thing I could recollect was narrow lanes, teeming devotees and pestering monkeys. My only prayer to Baba Vishwanath was get me out of there safely. Counter intuitive, perhaps, but this was a reality not so long ago. When I saw the video of the corridor master plan, no wonder it was like a breath of fresh air. Even Baba Vishwanth would have wanted His world to be this way. Clean, airy, well laid out and why not? No one likes suffocation, not even the gods who are beyond human conditions.

One rallying cry from the PM and the local MP “if Baba Vishwanath were to go down to the ghats, He should be able to see His home.” This is now looks like a real possibility. Without a Detailed Project Report, or DPR, in place, but with full clarity of purpose, the administration has demolished buildings that housed 240 out of the 290 families around the temple complex. Albeit, with more than fair compensation – at least four times than the going market rate --- for their property. But the one thing I have to come to terms with is that there is no perfect solution for anything in India. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction was a theory, perhaps, invented keeping India in mind. While as a tourist I warmed up to the thought of a clean and airy temple complex, there are equally disgruntled and affected lot because of this project. It was one thing to see the video and read articles, but completely another what I saw on ground zero. You will feel like you are on a set of a war movie or at an Archaeological Survey of India excavation site. Just to think that temples of those sizes were encased by illegal homes is a dizzying thought but to see not one, not two but a full 40 of them in all shapes and sizes was insane. It’s was almost like an entire civilization has been unearthed at one go. As one of the locals put if very aptly…yaha ki zameen ne saadiyon tak suraj nahi dekha haai (this land hasn’t seen daylight for hundreds of years). It was quite a defining statement for me on the enormity of encroachment. Another interesting aspect of this development is that if you have an aligned Centre and state government, only then is there a real chance of getting things done on the ground in record time.

Guts & Ghazipur

If someone would have told me a couple of weeks ago that you would be in eastern UP crisscrossing from one rally to another of a Union Minister of State Communications & Railways, I would have laughed it off. But here we were trailing the minister, catching up with him in between his back-to-back rallies and asking him tough questions. Surreal! This was my first tryst with the actual narrative of the BJP on the ground. It was a combination of national discourse and the local developmental issues. Often referred to as the Vikas Purush of eastern UP for the development he has ushered in the region, Sinha is a towering personality, clear thinker and equally at ease in English as he is in Hindi and native Bhojpuri. His impact on the economy of Ghazipur through his work as the minister of state for railways is visible. The Ghazipur City and Varanasi’s Manduadih railway stations have transformed physically in a big boost to the local economy. Improved connectivity, cleanliness, free Wi-Fi and better service are at the heart of it all. As the Ghazipur City railway master said the daily revenue has gone up Rs 10 lakh as compared to Rs 1.5 lakh five years ago.

The region was an opium-fuelled economy riddled with addiction and an underworld den that seems to have been successfully wiped out. Sinha is clearly working to a plan. First, improve the constituency’s infrastructure, tighten law and order, widen the net of social welfare schemes to empower locals through Ujwala, Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojana, access to power, Ayushman Bharat and Swacch Bharat Abhijyan, build confidence among the investors’ community and then follow it up with employment opportunity. He believes he is half way through the deliverable, but at the pace he is moving he should be able to meet the aspirations of his people on employment sooner than expected. When I asked a Hindu and a Muslim man in the gathering he was addressing, both unanimously claimed that they would vote for Sinha. Well done democracy, well done India…politicians beware, the voter is sharper than your strategy, and the narrative is fast changing. Give up on divisive politics, let’s make this nation great together.

Dark night no more!

As a marketer by profession, we have always evaluated UP as a blind media spot. The single reason behind it – poor electrification and erratic electricity supply. While we traversed through the urban and rural corridors during the day or at night, the one thing that stood out was that when Piyush Goyal and Modi cry themselves hoarse that they have completed the electrification of India…it is, indeed, true. Every house -- pucca or kuccha -- have an electricity metre with LED lights shining brightly. It didn’t dawn on me while we were travelling through the region, but when I landed back in Mumbai, I realised how much in the metros had taken power supply for granted. Let there be light for one and all!

The Truman Show – Modiji ka Atal Gaon!

The one thing you can’t deny the PM is that he is a master marketer, and if there is one thing he can do really well is package and execute his plans well. We also visited his adopted village in Jayapur, on the outskirts of Varanasi city, where the government has created a community centre complete with panchayat office, a school, a mahila udyog centre and a primary health centre under one roof.

This was followed by a visit to the Atal Gaon, a model village housing 14 Mushar or mahaDalit families. This is almost like an LIG-row bungalow complete with cable TV connection. The first impression is “ya nice”, but can it be scaled up across or will just be relegated to a float that one gets to see on R-Day parade?

Khai Ke Kachori, Lassi, Paan Baneraswala!

No trip to Varanasi can be complete without delicious lassi, kachori, litti, chokha and Baranasi paan. Election or no election, I would travel to this city on a lark just for the food and the fascinating sights and sounds.

Left, Left, Left Right Left!

I am taking the liberty of using an analogy of the march past command and linking it to what the BJP says and what it does. Contrary to the belief, that the PM follows through an extreme right-wing ideology, his plans on the ground are all that of a welfare state. Cleanliness, sanitation, LPG subsidy, healthcare, agri Insurance are fairly and squarely in the left domain. Across the length and breadth of the visit, awareness and usage of these schemes are pretty much omnipresent. Certainly, a refreshing change over the previous regimes where the schemes were announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort and were lost in the melee because of lack of implementation.

Sailing down the world’s oldest marine drive

When on a trip to Varanasi, the final evening was be saved for a trip down the mighty Ganga river and a glimpse of the iconic 88-odd ghats and round it off with a mesmerising evening aarti on the Dashashwamedh ghat. While, of course, this is the touristy thing, we were trying to marry work with leisure. Are the Ghats and the Ganga clean? Well, it is breathtaking without any iota of doubt. The same people who were littering the ghats are probably the ones protecting it. It just goes to show that once you give something good to people, they know how to take care of it themselves. From my last collection of the Ganga water, its purity is palpable. An interaction with the locals, who regularly take a dip, only reinforced by belief.

Respect, respect, respect!

If I were to sum up our four day visit in just three words, it would have to be respect, respect and respect for our politicians. To address 12-15 rallies in a day and travel through the heat and dust of eastern UP, I doff my hat to our committed leaders.

We could barely manage to attend three, before we started cribbing. My respect to mediapersons --- what they do to get us information is not for the faint-hearted, having experienced it first hand in some way all I can say is thank you. Last but not the least, my respect to the Firstpost team for not only flawlessly putting this show together but also taking the initiative to educate eight amazing Tournalists on how democracy works on the ground. My only hope and wish is that this grows to the next level, and more people show political awareness so that when they go to a polling booth to caste their vote, they will cast it knowingly and won’t get influenced by some shrill debates on TV, which generate more noise than illuminate our minds.

The author is busy building brands for over two decades, a foodie at heart, bitten by the travel bug since birth and someday hopes to write a book with his wife on parenting twins

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 16:33:49 IST