At Assi Ghat, a Sulabh worker sweeps away the dust, Siberian cranes respond to the calls of tourists, couples sit around staring at the winter smog, vendors sell coffee and bhel puri, advertisements for Spanish food vie for attention with those for Sai Baba worship.
A young man says hello to me. We had seen each other at Narendra Modi’s Jan Sampark office, where his constituents go with their grievances. His name is Ashish Yadav. He is 25 and a law student at the Banaras Hindu University. We sit down on the steps and talk politics.
He tells me that as a Bajrang Dal activist, his job is to protest any threat to the Hindu religion. He takes out three-four hours a day to propagate the Bajrang Dal ideology, bring more people into its fold.
I ask him about Narendra Modi’s achievements for Varanasi and country. “Let’s start with the country,” he says. “The biggest achievement is that he is changing people’s mindset. Take Swachh Bharat for instance. Let’s leave aside how much India has been cleaned up. Just see the change in people’s behavior. They look for a dustbin now, instead of littering the streets.”
Similarly, he says, Modi has brought about a change of mindset in government with regard to corruption.
What else? “His foreign trips, frankly, are a minus.” Why? Hereafter, he stops counting the Modi government’s achievements, and vents out his anguish.
“People complain he goes abroad too much, gives too many speeches, but does little. I tell them he goes abroad to bring investment, to make foreign companies come to India and create jobs. But people ask me, where are the foreign companies? Anyone came to Banaras? Created any jobs?”
People complain he goes abroad too much, gives too many speeches, but does little.
“See, I am not from the BJP, I tell them. But since I had actively campaigned for Modi in 2014 in the BHU campus, the people now come to me and ask for answers. I am not able to defend Modi’s foreign trips or his performance in 18 months.
“During the elections, people got the impression that would become prime minister and all problems would be solved overnight. Modi is doing what he needs to do, but I blame the local BJP. They have occupied the mayor’s chair for 25 years. Three of five MLAs are BJP members. They aren’t doing their job. Given how Varanasi is a BJP city from municipality to the prime minister, blaming the Samajwadi Party-led state government doesn’t wash with people.”
What does Varanasi want from its Lok Sabha representative, I ask him. What are the top things you think Modi ji should focus on? Roads, health and education, he says.
“Whenever Modi has to come to Varanasi, the municipal corporation starts repairing a few main roads on a war-footing. After Modi ji goes back to Delhi, they will stop caring about the roads. I suggest Modi ji to come and take a different road route every time he comes to Varanasi. That way, we’ll get good roads!
“The Banaras Hindu University’s medical college handles patients from across Purvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh). One doctor has a thousand patients in a day. The other hospitals are in a state of collapse. Can’t they do something about this? Look at the state of education, it needs a complete overhaul. Step outside the city and talk to farmers. Who will bring water to irrigate their farms?
“But when we go and talk to the BJP’s office bearers, they say sab theek to hai, all is well. But all is not well. The Ganga is not cleaner. There needs to be visible change, visible development that I could show people. Like this Assi ghat for instance. The steps behind me, they were earlier not visible, covered by sand. Modi ji took the initiative and got it cleaned. But it’s just one ghat. Look at the sewage flowing into the river. Why can’t they make they make the defunct sewage plants work? Waiting for the new ones may take forever.
“The only thing Modi has done for rural Varanasi is the Jayapur village. I am from a rural area, living in Varanasi for my studies. Back in my village, people wonder why they can’t see the development that Jayapur has seen? The roads, the water, the solar power. If Modi can do half the work of Jayapur for all villages, nobody will ever be able to defeat the BJP in rural areas. But the BJP doesn’t even enter rural areas. The Sangh doesn’t want to, I don’t know why.
“In BHU, we debate these things all the time. Some say inflation has increased, some say it has decreased. You know what happened with the price of dal. And there are no jobs despite Modi’s foreign visits.
“Modi ji has signed a pact with Japan to make Varanasi like Kyoto. I have not been to Kyoto but I Googled it. It has galis (lanes and by-lanes) just like Varanasi. Unlike Varansi’s lanes, theirs are clean. Only if we see some work here will we be able to make it like Kyoto. Not by talking alone.”
'SP and BSP listen to us more than BJP’
I ask him about the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, due in 14 months or so. “The only way the BJP can win, is if Hindutva can break caste. Bihar is an example.
“I’ll give you an example. Murli Manohar Joshi was contesting the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat in 2009. Mukhtar Ansari from the BSP looked like he had a good chance. Then the people of Varanasi, the Hindus, feared Mukhtar Ansari winning and came out in large numbers. Joshi ji won with a slender margin. A lot of credit for his victory that election goes to the media. TV channels flashed images of Muslims coming out to vote in large numbers. That made Hindu voters come out of their homes.
Modi ji has signed a pact with Japan to make Varanasi like Kyoto. I have not been to Kyoto but I Googled it.
“The BJP’s voters often don’t even want to cast their vote, sometimes because of local politics or caste. Recently, the BJP lost a municipal council seat because the seat was reserved for Scheduled Castes and the BJP’s voters didn’t want to vote for any candidate. We persuaded them a lot but many voters were just not interested in coming to the polling booth.
“Anyway, how do I care? I am from the RSS family. My father has been an RSS worker. The VHP and Bajrang Dal go about their ideological work regardless of who is in power. In the 2014 elections, I even wore a BJP t-shirt one day. And then I asked myself, what have I done? In the RSS we are not supposed to identify ourselves with the party. I had Ashok Singhal ji’s blessings for 8 years. I learnt a lot from him.
“Sometimes we are able to get our small work done better when the MLA or councillor is from the SP or the BSP. They are especially eager to do our work so that we say good things about them. The BJP’s representatives give us no respect.
“A Samajwadi Party worker can manage to speak to chief minister Akhilesh Yadav whenever he wants. I am not saying that I want to talk to Modi. Modi ji, like a good pracharak, has the spirit of sacrifice. Like him, all of us pracharaks have the same spirit. But when we sacrifice, we also want respect. We don’t like it when local BJP leaders treat us like servants.
“I am the most outspoken Bajrang Dal worker here. Today at Modi ji’s jan sampark office, I had gone with a request on behalf of another Bajrang Dal worker. His mother is unwell and we want her referred to a doctor at AIIMS in Delhi. I told the office bearers at Modi ji’s office, don’t do it if you don’t want to. I’ll get it done on my own.
“An SP worker would not face such apathy. In my village, if a household sends a wedding invitation card to the SP MLA, he will turn up himself, or at least send a representative. The BJP’s office bearers are not responsive this way. BJP leaders keep making rounds of the Sangh Parivar. If they were to spend that much time with the people instead, they wouldn’t need the Sangh. When BJP leaders come to power, they forget they have to work for the people.
I ask him why he thinks the BJP leaders aren’t responsive. “They have ahm, hubris.” Where does this arrogance come from, I ask. “I don’t know.” Is it caste? “Maybe. I have never faced casteism. I am a Hindu first and Yadav second. But I do notice something. Educated, young, urban Yadavs are attracted to the party. There are a lot of Yadavs in Varanasi who are in the BJP. But very few Yadavs get to hold official posts in the party.
“I’ll give you an example. In the 2009 election, I was in a team campaigning for Murli Manohar ji in a village. With me was a Bhumihar leader of the BJP. When we began to enter a Thakur basti, he said he’ll go to another area. He didn’t want to speak to Thakurs. I asked him if I should complain in the party about this. You are like my younger brother, he replied, you will sneak on me?”
It is getting dark. He takes me across to the next ghat, the Ravidas ghat. “See how beautiful it is. Mayawati made it. It is a lovers’ spot now.”
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