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Modi's Varanasi: A Dirty River, A Crumbling City And Disappointed Voters

09/04/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Just over 10 months ago, Varanasi elected Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi as its Member of Parliament and India chose him as its Prime Minister. The people were convinced he would do great things. After all, he said in his campaign that a divine calling, no less, had drawn him to Varanasi - "Main aaya nahin hoon. Mujhe Maa Ganga ne bulaya hai (I haven't just come. I have been called by Mother Ganges herself)." Much like the swell of the Ganges in the monsoon, expectations rose in this notoriously chaotic city.

With the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (India's largest state by numbers) due in 2017, the BJP and Modi must realise that the road to Lucknow is via Varanasi.

So, how far has Modi come in this city? How much did the blazing rhetoric actually translate into work on the ground? At best, progress has been slow. Even the rhetoric is faltering. Here is a look at what has happened in Varanasi over the past 10 months and what must be achieved to enable the BJP to win UP in 2017.

varanasi dirty

Ganga clean-up

Maa Ganga may have called Mr Modi here, but none of the promised work to clean up the river has even started. When will it start, is the question on everybody's lips. Even the Supreme Court asked the government if they planned to clean up the river in this term or the next. Despite repeated requests to the representatives of the BJP in Varanasi, even simple dredging of the river hasn't started even though it's the simplest thing to do to improve its conditions. The citizens of Varanasi are disappointed. They say their MP travels abroad so often but hasn't been able to find experts to assist with the Ganga programme in Japan or England or America. It is also disappointing for Modi's supporters when they hear about malls being constructed along the riverfront. A lot of resentment is brewing and local MLAs and the Mayor may have to face the backlash.

Infrastructure and roads

The decaying infrastructure of Varanasi, like many other cities, is groaning under the pressure of its 18 lakh residents and legions of visitors. Then there is an acute traffic problem due to the narrow roads - no work has started and it is very disheartening for the citizens of this city to see further apathy by yet another central government. Empty rhetoric does not fill the potholes of this city or repair its crumbling roads.

"Yahan Khuda hai, wahan Khuda hai, jahan bhi dekho wahan Khuda hai."

There is a crying need to make a new satellite city of Varanasi but there is no talk of it at all. We have all heard that the Varanasi-Kyoto pact will greatly help the city and make it "Smart" but so far there is nothing to show for it except for a few visits by Japanese delegations. The visiting Deputy Mayor of Kyoto was asked by a businessman what they planned to do here, and his answer can only be described as vague: "It's my first ever visit here. We are looking around. I will go submit a report to my Mayor."

Road digging

The digging up of Varanasi continues unabated for sewerage pipelines, as well as electricity and telecom wiring. This has been going on under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission for more than five years now. The joke in this temple city, an untranslatable play on "khuda", a homonym for "dug up" and "god", goes - "Yahan Khuda hai, wahan Khuda hai, jahan bhi dekho wahan Khuda hai."

The power problem

The summer has been slow in coming and except for two weeks so far, electricity has been fairly consistent in the city. It is an improvement as we Banarasis are used to 12-16 hour power cuts as summer comes upon us. It seems that the Prime Minister has given a quiet nudge to the young Chief Minister of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, or maybe it's just because of the better weather and unseasonal rains.

Ferries for final journeys

Last Month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and spiritual leader Morari Bapu inaugurated new steam boats (donated through the efforts of a BJP MP from Gujarat) that will be used to carry the bodies of the deceased to Harishchandra Ghat or the famous burning ghat, Manikarnika Ghat. It may be a small gesture but it has been well-received by the citizens of Varanasi as well as those who bring their dead to attain moksha in the holy city.

Weavers' centre

One of the first things PM Modi did in Varanasi was to lay the foundation stone for a weavers' trade centre. Work is underway but I wonder why he could not convince the state government to allot him land nearer to where the weavers' communities are based. After all, Shri Modi is heading a central government with a full majority in the Lok Sabha.

The BJP must act fast

clean india modi

The disappointment among the voters and residents of Varanasi is slowly rising and no amount of talk is going to bring acchhe din here -- only work on the ground will. With the CAG recently pointing out lacunae in the 'Gujarat Model' of development, a 'Varanasi model' of work and development could help the BJP to victory in 2017 here.

So far, the BJP has achieved little of substance in Varanasi, and with its defeat in the Delhi Assembly polls as well as the Goa Zila Parishad elections, it needs to realise that only tangible progress will be rewarded. Even in UP, the BJP could not get all its candidates elected to the Rajya Sabha recently.

A few things implemented quickly, such as repair, upgradation and new roads could help the party in the upcoming Bihar elections too as Eastern UP does influence parts of the neighbouring state.

A solid plan for waste management could go a long way towards solidifying a 'Varanasi Model' of development that the party could showcase to influence voters in all of UP. Assi Ghat may have improved somewhat, but if it takes three visits of the PM (spade in hand) to better one ghat, we are in for a very long ride as there are at least 84 ghats in Varanasi.

All in all, the BJP and their leader need to pull up their socks and fast if they want to see gains in Bihar and a mood upswing in Eastern UP, as the Indian voter is a fickle mistress. It punishes as quickly as it rewards if the New Delhi elections are anything to go by.

This two-minute Maggi noodle generation that voted in PM Modi could slurp him up very quickly and look for the next quick fix if the development agenda takes too long to turn into action.

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