Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-campaign rally in Varanasi proves two things: Development sells as a tool for electoral victory; and with an able team, you can actually deliver development even in cities with as decrepit an infrastructure as Varanasi, which was described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend”.
On Thursday, ahead of filing his nomination, the prime minister undertook a 6-km roadshow in Varanasi. Every chhajja (rooftop), every road, every market was crammed with people. In 2014, when he came to file his nomination, the crowd was estimated at 500,000. Today it was 600,000, the police said.
Modi went to the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat to offer prayers and ended his roadshow with Ganga Aarti on the banks of the river. He looked radiant and uplifted. And everyone in the crowd was beaming. This, without any speeches, without saying a word.
The two men who have wrought the miracle in Varanasi were by his side.
Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari’s contribution in realigning roads, knocking down anything that came in his way, has resulted in a new road network which is a delight to behold. Gone are the two-hour traffic jams, the fraught conditions, the stress and the cursing (‘maar, sarwa’ is the most oft-heard term exchanged between rickshawallahs, an uncomplimentary reference to one’s wife’s brother). “You can reach the city from the airport in 45 minutes, and anywhere within the city in 20 minutes now,” says Anil Kumar Patel, who runs a taxi service. This is largely on the back of a stupendous, smooth 4-km flyover, well lit and broad enough to facilitate two-lane traffic in a city as congested as Varanasi. Patel concedes that the plans for broadening roads were put in place when Akhilesh Yadav was CM. But political will was lacking. “This is because of Modiji. What he has done nobody did,” Patel says.
Manduadih Railway Station used to be like a village station, filthy and in disarray. Now there is a modern building, and extensive improvements with a train to Delhi stopping there as well. The ghats are cleaner: Because of an army of workers who will yell at you if they see you spitting paan. Much of this work has been coordinated by Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, the one in charge of the PM’s constituency and who started with re-developing Varanasi’s main station Mughalsarai (now renamed Deendayal Upadhayay) and is now working to rebuild others.
A before and after transformation is so stark that people are willing to overlook the downside: Demonetisation, which knocked the stuffing out of the town because everything that provides livelihood here — the sari business, tourism and travel — came to a standstill.
“Modiji ki vajah se longon ke munh mein khoon lag gaya hai (Modi has given people a bad habit),” says Ashu, who runs a roadside eatery. He says they now want more and more development. “He is sure to win: Because he has done so much.”
A reality check in Madanpura, the Muslim-dominated area, remains. Is it really sabka saath, sabka vikas? Will Modi revert to nationalism as the rallying call, overlooking all that he and his colleagues achieved in Varanasi? Answers will come when he speaks to locals.