Hope springs eternal in the eternal city

Souniya Khurana
The visit to Varanasi made me aware of a development tool: the child that the city nurtures

#CampaignTrailwithFirstpost to Varanasi and Ghazipur unfolded to be a journey full of overwhelming sights, insights, contrasts and contradictions, and more question marks than full stops. We navigated the interiors of eastern Uttar Pradesh to meet the leaders of these constituencies and saw them battle the heat and dust of elections €" up, close and personal. We also met the locals to understand their take on who will win the elections, and many other issues fundamental to their growth and survival. My first impression of the visit to both these constituencies was that the incumbents will return to the 17th Lok Sabha. But underpinning this impression was an old proverb and my belief that the devil is always in the detail.Seeing things, which are not apparently visible, come naturally to me.

As a 'Tournalist' on this trail, my aspiration was primarily to understand whether what was promised in 2014 has been delivered or not. I was keen to understand the election manifestos of the contenders of these constituencies for 2019. Is Meri Kashi as Prime Minister Narendra Modi fondly calls his constituency, truly Vikas Ke Path Per? Is Ghazipur, once known as Apradh Ka Kendra, on track to becoming Pragatisheel Ghazipur? Has Jayapur the PM's adopted village missed its target of becoming a model village? I was looking forward to getting a sneak peek into the progress on infrastructure, water, sanitation, financial inclusion, public health, Ganga cleaning, and such other socio-economic issues.

I didn't get all the answers.

But here is my narrative €" of what I saw, heard, observed and experienced €" of the phenomena called Varanasi €" the impressions and sound bytes, which will stay with me for long.

Would I be wrong to suggest that if we were to discuss, whether a city has progressed or is thriving, then speak to the child that it shelters? Of all the parametres that a city is evaluated upon, a recent visit to Varanasi, thanks to #campaigntrailwithFirstpost, made me aware of a tool far less evaluated on the development and standard of living checklist.  "The child that the city nurtures" and in this case it refers to the oldest living city in the world €" known by various names of Kashi, Benaras and Varanasi.

American novelist Mark Twain wasn't off the mark, when he made this pithy statement: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Setting my foot on Varanasi for the second time after 2008 is a reference point, which isn't even a speck of its glorious past. As a group of tourists, taking on the role of journalists and experiencing the heat and dust of the whirlwind poll campaign in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, Varanasi, the three-day-old trail was intense, immersive and laid bare the stark reality of how the sharp divide plays out between the rural masses, who comprise majority of the voters, and pseudo-intellectuals, armchair experts €" undoubtedly, a large section of politically- conscious and opinionated urban voters, who have zero connect with ground realities, like yours truly.

#CampaigntrailwithFirstpost started with the heat wave greeting us as we landed at Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport in Babatpur amid rising political temperatures because of the last phase of the election on May 19. While we were driven from the airport into the chaotic and noisy streets by a kind, witty, talkative and well-travelled Ramesh bhai, who is born and brought up in Varanasi, what caught my attention was this seamless stretch of a wide corridor connecting the airport road to the city.

The smooth and wide Babatpur Airport road made me wide-eyed in wonder and alert like a cat, curious on a prowl in an unfamiliar terrain. I was eager to find out, if Varanasi's recent infrastructure push is going hand-in-hand with the other pillars of its comprehensive development. A visit to a weavers' colony at Lallapura reinforced that sentiment.

I, as an outsider, who is deeply passionate about revival of craft, culture and the artistic heritage of our country, got a firsthand sense of the silent death of handloom. The unfolding conversation with the predominantly Muslim weavers underscored the lost art in the face of overpowering Chinese power looms.

The weavers are appreciative of the Modi government's schemes and are happy to gloss over recent challenges such as demonetisation and GST. But, the impoverished community rues the absence of a statesman in Indian politics, and wishes for a more compassionate view of the indigenous art and crafts sector.

The dingy by-lanes of Lallapura are a beehive of activity because of the grinding noise of Chinese-manufactured power looms --- reality bites of the globally-acclaimed Varanasi sarees. However, handlooms are struggling for survival as buyers for expensive hand-crafted sarees are few and far between. Caught between modernity and tradition, the weavers want their children to opt for other vocations and migrate to big cities because of the fickle nature of their trade.

Does Lallapura show any sign of development? Visibly, yes as electric cables that used to dangerously hang out are a thing of the not-so distant past and overflowing garbage strewn on the narrow lanes are well lit, hygienic and livable. There is, definitely, character to the chaos, that the cultural capital holds close to its heart, and many call it Benarasipan, from food to the language to the attitude and, of course, the political discourse. Every activity and facets of life have a flair which is unique to Varanasi.

My experience has been delightfully sensory. The trail entailed meeting some prominent political personalities and contestants from Varanasi and neighbouring Ghazipur constituencies.

As a professional marketer, what intrigued me the most was the diverse narrative. Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate from Varanasi, built his own narrative through lofty disdain for the Modi government and its exaggeration of the development work undertaken during its tenure. While Rai pointed out the challenges and the critical issues that Varanasi continues to face such as lack of drinking water, overflowing sewage into houses, local businesses shutting down after demonetisation, the raging Kashi Vishwanath corridor controversy and joblessness. What is Rai's strategy to counter these socio-economic issues?

The Bhumihar baahubali said he would fight Modi and his PR machinery by adopting Shivaji's strategy, or guerilla warfare tactics.

Following the sitting BJP MP and Union minister Manoj Sinha on his campaign trail, the big takeaway was how hard a politician needs to work 24x7, come hell or high water, to remain in public consciousness. Also, the infamous and notorious Ghazipur known for criminal gangs, opium cultivation and backwardness €" symptomatic of eastern Uttar Pradesh, or Purvanchal hinterland €" has had a silent makeover under the astute leadership of Vikaspurush Sinha.

His light touch of development is evident in the Ghazipur City railway station --- dubbed as the adarsh, or model, station under 'B' town category, girls roaming on village roads with fear or favour, construction of izzat ghar or toilet facilities under the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan.

I had an enlightening conversation with a 15-year-old girl at the Ghazipur City station, who confidently and enthusiastically talked of how her village has developed, and so has her school. Now, they have a teacher in every classroom throughout the day along with clean toilets.

Another pleasant meeting was with Shalini Yadav, the Varanasi candidate for SP-BSP coalition. She sounded confident in an uphill electoral battle and despite being a fresh face in politics.

She narrated the same plight of the locals as Rai did. However, what stood out was her remark against of Modi, "who doesn't know the DNA of Kashi because he's an outsider and only focusing on the optics and the cosmetic 'vikas', or development." As for a plan of action, does Yadav have one? May be not. Will she be in politics for long? Certainly, yes.

A visit to Varanasi is incomplete without a trip to the historic Benares Hindu University (BHU) --the driving force of academic discourse in the country with revealing insights from professors across all disciplines. The wise men of the BHU held forth on Benarasipan. Is it the hooliganism of the jobless youth of Varanasi or are we just scratching the surface? Has Varanasi kept pace in building a narrative and re-branded itself? Mayank Singh, deputy registrar, BHU, waxed eloquent about Varanasi's development, but urged the need for repackaging the ancient city, which in its current form is overwhelmingly religious.

He felt that it's about time that Benarasipan be redefined for what it really stands for --- lovable, agreeable and adjustable.

Singh pointed out that Assi ghat, which we visited the evening before the trail drew to a close and soaked the sights and sights while relaxing on a Bajra floating on the serenely calm Ganga, has undergone a sea change since I last visited in 2008.

The joy of seeing families, children and tourists happily meandering around the ghats and spruced up promenades are tell-tale signs of development.

The abiding memory of the eternal city Kashi was my brief encounter with Meenu, 7, as I stepped out to the Assi ghat from the Bajra. She came running to me to sell her balloons as she hustled her way and persistently tried to find herself a customer, she freely started singing jingles and rhymes, not for once losing hope, her charm and her confidence. And that's what springs eternal in the eternal city.

(Souniya Khurana is director, operations, Sun & Sands Advisory group, Japan)

Also See: Firsthand insight into the mood of the nation

The narrative of electoral politics

A Journey of Many Contrasts

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