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In the octopus grip of a tempest and a half

- MODI JUGGERNAUT UNLEASHES SIX-MILE-LONG FRENZY, AAP WHITECAPS SNAP ON FRINGES
Aam Aadmi Party and Modi supporters close in on each other in central Varanasi as the Modi roadshow closes in from Banaras Hindu University. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur

Varanasi, May 8: Arriving in Kashi a little past four this afternoon from Patna was like being flung into the belly of a tempest. Or, more rightly, a tempest and a half.

The Narendra Modi juggernaut had arrived for the prime ministerial aspirant’s first and only day’s campaigning in his chosen heartland constituency. It had come fuming at the nostrils over alleged proscriptions by the Election Commission, breathing fire and implying dire consequences for “partisan conduct”. It had vociferously denied itself all campaign opportunity — no rallies, no Ganga ride, no aarti. It had merely taken the vibrant heart of Varanasi in an octopus grip.

It progressed slowly down the Lanka piazza opposite the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) through the iconic city chowks of Godhaulia, Girija and Sigra, a lava roll of saffron. It choked the narrow bylanes, it threw the peripheries off kilter, it left the heart of Varanasi in gridlock. For six hours or more this evening, frenzy coursed about: “Modi! Modi!! Modi!!! Abki baar Modi Sarkar! Bachcha mange godi, Bharat mange Modi!!”

Modi, having snorted angrily at the Election Commission from his BHU stage, sat at the core of the slow tide, waving from his souped-up SUV. They’d lit the coupe from inside; to those who got thrown close in the churn, Modi was visible, a sardonic grin pasted on his visage. This had to be a posture for indignant protest, Modi was not stepping out to canvass, he was letting his Varanasi hordes do it. A frenzy six miles long swirled.

On the sidelines of it, outflanked and outnumbered, clutches of jumpy Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) whitecaps waved brooms and cried change. Their spirits undimmed by the gigantic Modi tableau grinding past, the cry no lesser than the tectonic decibel for Modi ringing above Varanasi. They were what made today’s tempest a tempest and a half.

They came snapping on the fringes of the Modi phalange, in small packs, like they had assigned themselves to making hit and run scores. They screamed change, they chanted unity, they mocked aloud the “agents of corrupt corporate raj”. Then they scooted along. At the Sigra crossing, not far from the AAP headquarters in Mahmoorganj, they erected an eyeball-to-eyeball barricade more audacious than any other.

All of a sudden, a frill of white conjured itself alongside the saffron jetty awaiting Modi’s arrival — a palpably volatile prospect. Some asked the AAPists to be removed from the scene; how can they be here, this is our day, our stage. The policemen, nervous at the prospect of an eruption, didn’t move. The AAPists held their ground; they have every right, they retorted, they were at the crossing on way to Arvind Kejriwal’s evening aarti date at Dashashwamedh Ghat. They held their ground at the barricades. The saffron cadres thought it best to ignore them, let them be till they were allowed on past the security bandobast. “Dimaag chakra raha hai,” a policeman muttered under his breath, “dono lage hain tule ek doosre par.

He had been minding the crowd three hours and he was tuning out of energy and patience. Modi was nowhere in sight, the thought of a clash frazzled him. He wanted the fuss over.

Every Varanasi chowk lay besieged and girdled. At the Girijaghar roundabout, a group of women had grabbed the traffic island, throwing off the lone and hapless traffic cop, who loped off to the tea vend at the corner. BJP vigilantes had taken over traffic control, letting some pass, banishing others back or into narrow alleyways. “Banaras is in tumult,” one of them cried out over the clamour, “Such a landslide it is, just watch, this is how the victory will turn out, like a huge landslide. Nothing will now stop Modi from becoming Prime Minister, nothing nobody, let these stray dogs bark.”

Further along the road, at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where Kejriwal was meant to address a corner meeting following the aarti, a handful of apparatchik busied themselves knocking together a stage — a vinyl Kejriwal poster awaited nails, flags awaited staffs to be stuck into, someone was desperately calling the sound system chaps. A few of the faithful thought it better not to hang about; they began enacting an impromptu skit. “Bhrashtachaar se aazaadi! Balatkaar se aazaadi!! Ambani gas se aazaadi!!”

A ring began to form around them. It looked like a puddle to the Modi torrent, a half tempest.