Watch: A political journey in Varanasi, a constituency the world is watching

PUBLISHED ON: April 23, 2014 | Duration: 9 min, 00 sec

   
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India's cultural capital has been transformed this election season into its political headquarters. Today, Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, filed his nomination in Varanasi. That action was completed yesterday by Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party.

The meta profiles of the contenders have ensured that political slogans now cross-fade the gentle prayers that can be heard on the city's famous ghats on the banks of the Ganga - a unique amalgam that has turned Varanasi into a constituency that the world is watching.

At 4.30 am, just before first light, the waters of the Ganga shimmer under the soft light of a retiring moon... As the boatman takes us up the Ganga, we cross the Manikarnika Ghat, a sacred spot for cremations. Just a few feet later, the bells of a temple ushering in the morning reinforce the circle of life.

And as the sun takes over the sky, Varanasi is in full swing.

A conch rings out over the Dasashwamedh Ghat, the morning aarti introduces a new day, but the devotees who are gathered here are also talking of a new political beginning. The discussion is fierce.

A group of Modi supporters and a Kejriwal loyalist are locked in a war of words, which finally ends in the wager that come counting day, Modi's margin of victory will leave his opponents embarrassed.

In the city known as Shiva ki Nagri or the abode of Lord Shiva, a group of Shiv devotees are on their morning walk, making their way across the ghats.

"We feel one man will be like a ray of light at a time when we are surrounded by darkness," says one of them in tribute to Modi.

Down the steps of the ghats, a boat has brought in a newly-wed couple, family in tow, to seek blessings for their new life together.

The bride is not keen to comment, but her husband says what Varanasi needs is obvious - the oldest living city in the world must be updated with modern infrastructure and amenities.

In 2009, the BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi won Varanasi by a margin of only 17,000 votes. Discontented Banarasis say had the BJP fielded him again this time, it would have lost the election.

Away from the always-bustling Dasashwamedh Ghat, a group of young men and teenagers are enjoying the cool of a breeze across the water at the Chausathi Ghat, located next to a colony of Muslim weavers, craftsmen of the magnificent Banarsi Saree, who in a long tradition of syncretic interdependency, have always sold their creations to Hindu retailers. Their vote is crucial in a constituency where over 15 percent of the population is Muslim, but it could be fragmented among contestants like Mr Kejriwal and the Congress' Ajay Rai.

Among these voters, there is a wariness about discussing the election with candor. Many say Varanasi has also sided with the BJP, so their options are limited.

"Our community has not decided which way to vote. I don't think we are in sync with the rest of Banaras," says a man named Riyaz. When asked about whether they may opt for Mr Kejriwal, Riyaz says "People don't want to say much here, they are scared."

In the streets packed with tourists, shopkeepers and local residents, several rickshaw pullers sport the Aam Aadmi topi or cap, signaling their support for Mr Kejriwal.

A recent visit by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has not apparently made a big impression. "Congress is not in the game at all," says one of the rickshaw pullers.

As the sounds of prayers and politics come together in Banaras, often in a deafening crescendo of prayers, bells, conch shells and sloganeering, the city that Mark Twain called "older than history.. older even tradition.. older even than Legend" returns the stare of the country with an unflinching gaze that seeks time and attention much after the elections are over.
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