“This is the power loom, fast and money-making like your big city, and that is the handloom, slow and poor like this city,” Mohammed Arshad, a young weaver, strikes a pithy comparison. The looms that churn out Banarasi saris hum constantly in the maze of lanes and bylanes of Lallapura, a congested, Muslim-majority area here. Only that sound stands out even in this election time. No campaign frenzy, very few posters.
The older generation has become cynical. The younger voters are angry that the election has been reduced to a “Hindu versus Muslim” contest. “The election should have been about development and people. We have no school at Lallapura, the government hospital has no doctors despite a mile-long queue. Look around, is this what a city should look like?” Mr. Arshad asks. Why the election here has become a contest between two religions? It is the anointment of Varanasi as a “political capital,” Vishwambharnath Mishra, head of the Sankat Mochan Mandir, offers an answer. “It was a religious, cultural and educational capital; now it is a political capital. So, all local issues have been buried. But the people of this city want to know whether they will benefit if Mr. Modi [BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi] or Mr. Kejriwal [Aam Aadmi Party candidate Arvind Kejriwal] wins,” he says. Professor Mishra, known as ‘Mahant,’ or chief priest, has had leaders of all parties in the fray calling on him. Among them was Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, who was here for the nomination of the Congress candidate, Ajay Rai. “Tonnes of money has gone into Ganga action plans, but it is all a waste. The only solace is that Mr. Modi, Mr. Kejriwal and the Congress are all talking about saving the Ganga. This political sensitisation needs to be converted into action,” he says. Even as the battle royale usurps all attention, Varanasi seems to be fighting its own battle between heritage and development, between tradition and modernity.
“When we say this city is older than history and tradition, it doesn’t mean that it should be caught in a time warp. Decay and neglect are being mistaken for old-world charm,” says Anant Kumar (name changed), a hotel manager.
Varanasi is a city of spectacular ghats, salvation, tolerance and coexistence of religions. It is also a city of bad roads, shrinking open spaces, overflowing sewage, mounting waste and traffic chaos.
“This city is on the verge of collapse. There is a floating population of about two lakh that come in search of employment every day. The river has not been cleaned, proposals for new townships have been withheld, power outages average seven hours a day and people have almost given up on municipal water supply,” says Anshuman Rai, Director of Heritage Hospitals Ltd., one of the biggest corporate hospitals here. The BJP’s frenzied clarion call that the city is not choosing an “MP but a PM” does not find resonance across the city. “What difference will it make? If we go by example, then Rae Bareli, Amethi, Guwahati and Phulpur would have been model cities since they were represented by prime ministers,” Mr. Anant Kumar says.