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DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF THE CITY OF LIGHTS

The first person I met in Varanasi was Tiwariji. Ageing, courteous and seemingly unaffected by the blistering heat, he met me outside the airport, enquired about the purpose of my visit ó ďChunao cover karne ayein hain?Ēó and then led me to the waiting car. Once we were inside the vehicle, I had expected Tiwariji to turn the ignition key. He didnít. Instead he turned around, studied me briefly, and then broke into an uninterrupted speech in praise of Narendra Modi. For a moment, I feared that I had been tricked into hitching a ride on a rath instead of a car.

Varanasi, Tiwariji argued, would vote overwhelmingly in Modiís favour because of several reasons. Modi has been elected three times as chief minister of Gujarat. This, in Tiwarijiís opinion, is irrefutable proof of the manís ability as an administrator. Second, Modi, having consciously rebuffed the pleasures of domesticity, has dedicated his public life to seva. (Evidently, Tiwariji was unaware of the existence of Jashodaben. A spectral figure, she was at last given the privilege to exist officially when her husband filed his nomination papers.) Most importantly though, Modi has become synonymous with vikas (progress). The markers of development, Tiwariji said while trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid a crater on the road, are metalled roads, a reliable supply of electricity and clean water. Modiís rousing speeches and his seeming incorruptibility have also made him invincible among tainted electoral representatives.

Tiwariji was prevented from reciting the complete inventory of Modiís virtues by a cow, an animal that the BJP manifesto promises to elevate to the status of protected species. This particular bovine had urinated on a vegetable cart, forcing the vendor to confront the animal which stood blocking the narrow road. The mataís indifference seemed to have irked even the unflappable Tiwariji. He informed me curtly that we had reached the old city.

In the following days, as I toured Varanasi on foot, a number of people endorsed Tiwarijiís arguments in favour of Modi. They included shopkeepers on the road that led to the bustling Dashaswamedh Ghat, a group of elderly patrons of Pappuís tea shop near the Assi chauraha as well as pilgrims jostling to enter the alley that led to Vishwanathís shrine. On joining the dots of these conversations, a picture began to emerge slowly, one that reveals a heartening sign as well as several disappointments about democracy and India. The euphoria over Modi ó an outsider who is perceived to be an efficient ruler ó in an insular constituency like Varanasi reflects a fledgling demand for performance on the part of the electorate. Such a demand, if nurtured carefully, has the potential to strengthen the base of a representative democratic edifice where merit would undermine caste and community affiliations. Traditionally, elections have been won or lost in Varanasi on the basis of complicated arrangements that consolidate and, at the same time, polarize such communities as Muslim (3.75 lakh voters), Brahmin/Bhumihars (over 5 lakh voters) and Kurmis/Chaurasias (over 3 lakh voters). These configurations would become redundant if the people were to prioritize inclusive development above identity.

But the conversations also revealed a dangerously skewed understanding of both development and State responsibilities. Varanasiís enchantment with Modiís idea of vikas conjures up an image of a society where governance would be adjudged by the quality of certain services demanded by a vociferous class of consumers. None of the respondents I interviewed knew of Gujaratís less prosperous areas, such as the sparsely populated Dangs district. Yet they seemed certain that Modi would transform Varanasiís turd-lined alleys and clogged sewers in a matter of days. Significantly, Modiís pitiful record in health and education remain irrelevant in Varanasi. Gujaratís drop-out rate is 57.9 per cent, higher than the national average of 49 per cent; the drop-out rates among Dalits and tribal people are 65 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively; the shortage of paediatricians and gynaecologists in community health centres is 94 per cent and Gujaratís IMR and MMR remain, worryingly, at 38 and 122.

Varanasiís apathy to such critical failures on the part of a three times-elected chief minister is a chilling reminder of the redundancy of social capital ó education, healthcare, and so on ó in the charter of peopleís demands. The Gujarat riots, and Modiís alleged abetment of them, are no longer a part of the Ďsecular imaginationí though. Modiís admirers in Varanasi contend that minor aberrations ó orchestrated murders as well as the penury and displacement of Muslims ó ought to be overlooked by an India desirous of meaningful economic transformation.

Even the nascent demand for performance and accountability ó the hallmarks of a mature democracy ó is not universal. One day, a little after dawn, I had made my way to Harishchandra Ghat. A couple of pyres had been lit (picture 2), the smoke fanned by the breeze from the river rose in strange shapes. A man came over and asked whether I was waiting to collect the ashes. We stood watching the flames in silence and then began a conversation in hushed tones. The stranger refused to give his name but confided that he was a Dalit. He survived by doing odd-jobs in and around the area: chopping firewood, taking tourists on a tour of funerals, and selling hashish. As a voter, his only complaint was that the Bahujan Samaj Party had refused to put up a formidable opponent against Modi. In Madanpura ó described as a garh (secure enclave) by one Muslim respondent ó the mood seemed to be decisively in favour of Modiís primary challenger, Arvind Kejriwal. The demand of improved civic services ó electricity was available for only six hours and Madanpura was prone to flooding ó waned before the communityís anxiety about Modiís allegedly communal leanings. The rickshaw-puller who ferried me to Assi Ghat in the evening complained, among other things, of the absence of a credible candidate from the working class who could relate to his concerns about the rise in prices, the lack of social security for labourers, and the cartel that profits by exploiting beggars and widows.

The primacy of identity among the weaker sections is usually explained, patronizingly, as their vulnerability to sectarian forces and their lack of education. But in a fundamentally unequal society, identity serves as the only fulcrum around which the dispossessed people mobilize themselves in order to expose broader injustices. The closing of ranks among Madanpuraís Muslim residents against Modi, for instance, is a testimonial of the distance that the majoritarian Indian State has to travel to honour its constitutional commitment to equality and inclusiveness.

The elections in Varanasi also expose the pitfalls of reducing a democratic contest to a clash between contrasting personalities. Electoral issues critical to the constituency itself have been relegated to the margins amidst the clamour to elect a domineering but seemingly efficient candidate against his mellower but self-righteous rival. Varanasi is an unmitigated civic disaster. Fecal matter (picture 4), diesel boats, rotting flowers and ash on the shrinking river, the cacophony of traffic on its narrow roads, the litter on the lanes that lead to temples ó everything in the holy town seemed to mock the collective obsession with rituals of purity. Enquiries at a chemist shop revealed that most patients seek treatment for enteric and skin diseases, the signs of water-borne contamination. Statistics bear evidence of the magnitude of the crisis. Data released by the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which is fighting a losing battle to save the Ganga, reveal that at Tulsi Ghat, the Fecal Coliform Count (FCC) per 100 ml is 62,000. The permissible limit for FCC is 500 per 100 ml. This information is seven years old. The BJP, which is enthusiastic about the contentious river inter-linking project, remains suitably vague about the steps to clean the Ganga.

Yet another kind of contamination remains unacknowledged in the electoral fray: the desecration of Varanasiís ghats (picture 1). Near Munshi Ghat, I had set up a meeting with Debashish Paul, a member of the Kautilya Society, a voluntary organization that operates from a splendidly ornate building that was once the temporary abode of Allen Ginsberg. Paul seemed to share the illustrious poetís radicalism. He smoked like a chimney, complained about air pollution, admitted that he admired Ashok Singhal but complained bitterly about BJP corporators, real-estate sharks and temple mahants who have connived to destroy the ghats and ancient buildings. In the 1990s, judicial intervention secured the fate of the iconic Darbhanga Palace. There were whispers of turning it into a heritage hotel. But not every other historical structure has been as lucky. Lolark Kund in Assi Ghat is in a shambles. A hotel stands cheek-by-jowl with the Man Mahal (picture 3), and countless havelis on the steps of the river have been turned into hotels. The urgency to protect these buildings is not only premised on their antiquity. These buildings are a reminder of the syncretism which, while informing the idea of India, predates India as a political entity.

Also under threat is another bastion of Varanasiís inclusive character: classical music. The decline in the popularity of the thumri, a form of music that binds diverse communities, is just one example. In Varanasiís alleys, I discovered several dubious institutions that claim to turn students ó essentially gullible foreigners ó into visharads. Bismillah Khan has, expectedly, been fetishized. But his legacy, an effective bulwark against the poison of communalism, remains neglected. The evident polarization in Varanasi is a stark reminder of the fact that it is not enough to invest faith in democratic institutions to negate communalism. The dissipation of platforms that serve as channels to foster communitarian links has to be addressed. Their neglect is mirrored by the depletion in the ranks of patrons of the arts or of Varanasiís famed Ganga-Yamuna sanskriti.

Elections are essentially binary contests. Varanasi is thus being asked to choose not just between Modi and Kejriwal. The polls are also an unequal contest among opposed entities such as identity politics and development, ecology and populism, secularism and sectarianism.

Ironically, the greatest impediment to this battle to salvage Varanasi is the mystical aura of the city itself. In the evenings, as dusk fell, I used to sit on the ghats and watch devotees light diyas and then float them on the darkening waters. I would hear the strain of the azaan from a distant mosque as well as the chiming bells from the nearby temples. The air would be heavy with the smell of incense and burning logs. And just for a moment, the polls, pollution, poverty and polarizationó everything that I experienced or learnt about during my stay ó would cease to matter. Staring at the bobbing specks of light, I would wish for nothing to change.