Ritualistic Varanasi is India’s past. Whether we like it or not, it is beginning to look very much like India’s future, too. And, so, Narendra Modi, now frequently in action at the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, is not just India’s most powerful PM post-independence. He is also the arch-priest.
Uttar Pradesh goes in for its 7th and last phase of polling in the assembly elections on March 7. Varanasi, where I have been camping for no particular reason besides the congenital crisis of adolescence persisting into my old age, is a prestige battle zone. And politics here is co-terminus with the Hindu religious culture. A victory here for the BJP is a victory like no other. It is proof that the Gods are in control of India’s destiny.
Both Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal have contested from here in the previous general elections. Modi won, Kejriwal lost. These are the days when anyone who is not a manic Hindu would lose in Kashi. Kejriwal does, on occasions, pretend to be one, but is invariably exposed as Modi and his men and women are much more histrionically adept at appropriating India for Hindus on an industrial scale, as his political show in town on Friday night opened to packed audiences. One item-number was his pooja at the renovated Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.
On Friday, Modi was yet again in town to campaign for a second term for the Yogi Adityanath administration in UP.
The same week had seen other formidable BJP leaders like Amit Shah and J P Nadda address rallies in the always dysfunctional city deranged to a frenzy every time a national leader lands. The leaders, without exception, hold poojas in the Kashi Vishwanath temple, a vast hotel-like structure now built of marble and mantras and perhaps more easily accessed, not only through the very narrow steep lanes packed with tight little shops on either side and always wet with water of one kind or another but also from the now renovated Dashashwamedh Ghat.
The temple complex is still being built. On Friday, again, Modi would visit the temple, skipping the mile-long queues which, to score a cheap point, shows all are not equal before God. Also, Modi would see the temple complex clean. Naturally. If he came this way again, disguised as a Sadhu, he would see the temple squalid and dirty, just like the rest of the town almost confidently is. The roads are violently chaotic. The traffic moves by means of magic and horns. Cycle Rickshaws waylay cars which block motorcycles that have been blocked by auto rickshaws. Pedestrians chant Har Har Mahadev and pick their way through this jungle of blaring iron and steel and wheels and remain compulsively cheerful, and most of them are young.
Some 35 per cent (about 55 million) of UP’s population are men and women in the age bracket of 18-35. And that holds true for Varanasi, too. This section has bought into the thinking that the BJP is the future.
The party promotes the dream like a stage in a plan that is hosted by gods, temples, the usual promises, and ghats. Very visibly, in fact, the ghats. Every evening around 7, the ghats turn into a flood-lit religious rock show.
On Asi Ghat, where I stayed, the daily aartis are an elaborate and noisy affair and, again from across the river, and your ears stuffed with cotton, the pageant looks beautiful, like a scene from the Mahabharata or Ramayan.
If you watched the proceedings from the packed ghat, you would see an overwhelming percentage of the crowd is formed by youngsters, lower middle-class youth, male and female, in the cheapest but most fashionable clothes, often holding hands. The Ghats in the evening are the discos of Varanasi. The energy of the chants and the music over the speakers afford a kind of mystic rock culture, and if you stood there longer than necessary you would be aware that this kind of insanity is infectious and that you would be lost; it is like beneath your feet the earth is still firm, but beneath that the river has taken you down to another passage in time, to a mythic past, and there you would be able to see your future was this: you watching the mass trance on the ghats, and slowly becoming one among them, merged with the mob, like a hundred tributaries of the Ganga becoming the one massive highway to the eternal ocean. You have a sense of return instead of arrival.
On Friday night, Modi was conducting himself with great elan the role he has never confessed to but, without doubt, is aware (just as his party does), with his whole being: he is the priest-king of new-old India, the only PM in post-independent India with the power to return a people to their past; a past so grand it looks like the future: the renovated Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.
Varanasi is where it begins. The town, like most of North India, belongs to Ram. Then to Rahim. Now to Ram again. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, which the BJP has successfully appropriated from the superficially more secular parties like the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, is a kind of war room. Every time, Modi or another BJP leader drops by, jamming traffic and city life to an excited stand-still, the temple assumes the dimension of a situation room.
There, at the sanctum sanctorum, we can see the leaders in direct conversation with Lord Shiva, webcast live. The Mandir itself has been the scene of the Hindu-Muslim culture war — from the 11th century onwards. A symbol of it, the Gyanvapi mosque, almost butting into the Mandir, is now safely caged out by the huge Mandir wall. That was not the case when Aurangazeb demolished the Mandir in 1669. There have been gives and takes before and since, of course. In a 1000 years’ arc, the curve just now is Hindu.
And it is this feeling, that of the Age of the Hindu, that the town with all its great gods is now safe for its agarbatti-scented, aarti-lit revival, that the BJP has so successfully identified itself with. That they are the agent of that change. It’s a manic feeling. No one realizes this better than Modi. Unlike any other place he visits, Modi is at ease in the heartland of India, performing the role of the spiritual leader who would also transform the material lot of the devotees — with a little help from Shiva and Ganga.
In Nalin Mehta’s book, The New BJP, there are clear statistics of how that agency, skippered by a ‘savior’ like Modi or Yogi Adityanath, uses competently welfare politics, adeptly practised by states like Kerala, to reach the millions, and to whom the BJP is not just a political party but a Vatican-like institution that has breached the distance between the Hindu and his bounteous God. This is a groundbreaking achievement. Good or bad, it changes the metrics of Indian politics. And every day in Varanasi it is in full display. This city was India’s past. Unfortunately, it is also India’s future.
(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal.)