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THE ETERNAL CITY

It is for real. Narendra Modi will fight the Lok Sabha elections from Benaras, an ancient city that sits on the banks of the mighty Ganges. Both the city and the river are infused with faith and history, myth and legend. Their souls symbolize the plurality of India. In many ways, Benaras brings together a diverse and complex culture in which a natural treasure coexists with an extraordinary material heritage. The magic of ‘creation’ lives on in the hands of the people. Was the decision to choose Benaras as his constituency a symbolic statement on Modi’s part?

The political impact will be discussed ad nauseam till polling day. All kinds of theories will be thrown about which would either be lapped up or discarded depending on where our allegiances lie. However, Modi’s commitment to Uttar Pradesh will, most definitely, alter the course of this election and abet a possible deviation from the traditional calculations based on caste, class and community. Chances are that Modi will have an impact on Bihar too. But one thing is certain. If the Bharatiya Janata Party bags more than 200-odd seats, it will be deemed as a Modi victory that the BJP piggybacked on.

Utter neglect

Elections come and go and leaders get elected and defeated. Nothing in politics is permanent or in perennial bloom. Benaras, though, is forever. The tragedy is that this city has been neglected. It is now the epitome of all that has failed in India after Independence. Not a single national or regional leader has given this sacred city the respect that it deserves. In spite of the abject governance and the breakdown in administration, Benaras envelopes the visitor, whether an atheist, an agnostic or a believer, in an unmatched aura that encompasses the layered intangibles of life, living and death. Mosque and temple pierce the skyline along the ghats. Muslim artisans and Hindu merchants people the ancient city. Sarnath is located within the landscape. Synergy is a tried, tested and working reality. It is only politics that has failed this ancient Indian city.

Will Benaras get its due? Will effluents continue to be dumped in the Ganges or will recycling plants use waste to generate energy? Will the ghats and gallis be kept spotlessly clean by not only holding a lazy and corrupt administration and municipality accountable but also making them effective? Will the cleaning of the river begin in its high reaches with the banning of small dams and other dreadful interventions that have silted and polluted it? Will conservation become the mantra, yielding results within months? Will the drains be covered? Will the weavers, musicians, singers, toymakers and other artisans be recognized? Will Kashi be restored and rejuvenated? Surely it can be kept as clean as the Golden Temple by encouraging kar seva and by making stakeholders — including the municipality and other government agencies — responsible for preserving the cleanliness and purity of the space? The first thing on the agenda of the next dispensation should be the restoration of Benaras.

India is a dichotomy. Muslim craftsmen decorate Hindu deities but they are not permitted inside temples. Bismillah Khan lived in Benaras and played the shehnai outside the Viswanath temple. He longed to attend the sandhya aarti, but could never do so. There is the partnership between Muslim weavers and Hindu traders, without which both their businesses would be dead. There are contradictions, and there is compatibility. There is diversity and unity of purpose. There is richness of spirit and poverty. And so it goes on in an eternal cycle that needs supportive, organic interventions and not crude, unthinking intrusions. Benaras must demand its due as must the river.