Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday (August 2) held an impressive roadshow in Varanasi – a city that had turned saffron just two years ago when Narendra Modi had landed in the city to file his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha elections.
Modi’s roadshow in April 2014 had virtually choked the roads in the city. There were people all around – on roads, on terraces, on rooftops, and even on trees. The city went on to elect Modi giving him unprecedented numbers – some 6,00,000 votes – over 56 per cent of the total votes cast.
BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, who had won the 2009 Lok Sabha polls from Varanasi, had got just 2,03,122 votes. The 2004 winner, Congress’ Rajesh Mishra, could get 2,06,904 votes. It shows there was an unprecedented mobilisation of voters in Modi’s favour.
Going by that, the city should have given Sonia or anyone else a lukewarm response. The voters would not have been too interested in Sonia or any other leader had Modi delivered on the promises he made, if he would have put the city on a development map that would be visible to its residents.
After all, he has been representing the city in Parliament for over two years now. Therefore, Sonia’s successful roadshow in Varanasi on Tuesday assumes importance in the context of the overwhelming support for Modi before the 2014 general elections.
The residents of the city have been sore because of unfulfilled promises and hence, have been looking for someone who can alleviate their pain.
Every resident of the city would say so. I come from Varanasi and I say so. In the words of Mark Twain, Varanasi is a city that is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
That “oldness”, which the American writer was trying to refer to, is the hallmark of the city, but with changing times, it has become a sore point as well.
For this the people who are supposed to manage the affairs of the city have been responsible. They have exploited the city’s antiquity but have deliberately left it shorn of modernity.
The city’s fame of being the spiritual-religious capital of India and one of the oldest citadels of the Indian civilisation has failed to keep pace with the needs of the changing times. All because of the people who are elected to run its affairs.
And when I say that the city has not changed with the times, I refer not to the Varanasi society or its spiritual-religious or cultural heritage or its academic legacy, I refer to its crumbling infrastructure. The unorganised growth of the city has not yet been balanced by “organised growth”.
Often the shabby state of affairs in the city creates anomalies that irritate you.
Varanasi, technically, has been a metropolitan city now for many years and the basic civic amenities – piped water, piped gas, 24-hour electricity, proper transportation, efficient administration of health and education facilities, a modern airport – that should be there for a metro city which is also a global tourism attraction, are hardly there.
Varanasi is one of the major contributors to India’s tourism earning; a city that is an education, spiritual and cultural hub; a city that is one of the very few places in the world having seen human civilisation since it all began.
The city is crumbling under the pressure of administrative and political apathy and such is the poor condition of the infrastructure that though Varanasi is known as the city of the Ganges, water of the holy river is today not fit for a dip.
We can gauge the administrative apathy from the fact that Varanasi has never elected an Samajwadi Party or BSP MP, the two main political parties of the state which have been in power since Mulayam Singh Yadav became chief minister in December 1993.
Yes there have been BJP chief ministers like Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh but they could not complete their terms.
The SP and BSP’s focus essentially has been on the Assembly constituencies that vote for them – the rural constituencies or the constituencies on the outskirts of the city.
That is why Varanasi voted en masse for Modi because the residents saw him as the best bet for the city’s revival to emerge as the heritage capital of India – an aesthetic blend of religion, spirituality, culture, tradition, antiquity and modernity.
They felt confident as Varanasi was going to elect someone who could become India’s next prime minister, something that would have elevated Varanasi’s status as a VIP constituency.
Throughout his campaign, Modi pushed for an extensive vision of making Varanasi a world class city, that we believed the country’s next prime minister and the development-oriented administrator will deliver to us. But during my two recent trips to the city, I felt a sense of loss.
The city’s dirt quotient is still the same as it was in May 2014 when Modi took over as the prime minister and retained the Varanasi seat over Vadodara (in his home state Gujarat) from where he had also won.
The city’s residents can’t think of round the clock power supply, let alone piped gas and a sewage system covering the whole city.
There are proposals to build a metro train system but there are only talks so far.
The city still looks like an unorganised urban mess of garbage dumps, congested roads and drains spilling over. We don’t know when the airport modernisation work and the proposed bullet train corridor will be implemented.There are some efforts but Varanasi needs massive reconstruction and modernisation to become a world class heritage city, something that it deserves. We can’t say when it will happen though we pray for it daily and we can say the efforts so far don’t meet the requirements.
During my visit, I tried to assess the mood in my conversations with the people from different walks of life, from academicians to administrators, from ghat-dwellers to people living near the airport outside the city limits, and from students to rickshaw-pullers.
And my first-hand account didn’t find the situation in line with the huge expectations with which the city voted for Modi. The response to Sonia’s roadshow should be seen in that context.
Sonia’s event in Varanasi on Tuesday was successful because not much has changed in Varanasi between Modi’s grand roadshow in April 2014 and Sonia’s roadshow in August 2016.
Varanasi lags behind on the development quotient. The hopes of Varanasi becoming a VIP constituency have been dashed and people are getting disillusioned.
Its most potent indicator was when the BJP-supported candidate could not win the panchayat polls in Jayapur held in November 2015, the Varanasi village adopted by Modi under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY).
Moreover, BJP supported candidates could win only nine out of the 48 district panchayat seats in Varanasi.
Probably this is what would have prompted the Congress strategists to coin the term “Dard-e-Banaras” (the pain of Banaras/Varanasi).