For once, there is more politics than spirituality, or so it seems, in Varanasi, reputedly the most ancient living city on earth. All around there is frenetic political activity. The deafening campaign for Monday's Lok Sabha election ended Saturday evening after all political players gave a final push in the sweltering heat.
Paul Benetto, an Italian on an Indian summer sojourn, is amazed. A taxi driver, he now prefers the cacophony of the election campaign in Varanasi over the serenity of the Buddhist stupa in Sarnath. He is bewildered by the sea of "political caps" in different hues and colours. In broken English, he says the election scene has left him "speechless".
The temple town, said to be perched atop a 'trishul' (trident) held by Lord Shiva, its reigning deity, is choked with people from Gujarat, Delhi and other parts of the country to witness an epic battle between BJP's prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal and Ajay Rai of the Congress. There are no vacant rooms in dharamshalas, hotels, paying guest houses and government-owned residential complexes.
All have been booked by different political parties for their leaders and supporters. Modi, the BJP candidate, took out two impressive road shows in a show of strength. Kejriwal and his supporters are engaged in street meetings to woo the electorate.
In the summer heat, over 40 candidates, including a transgender, are campaigning relentlessly. Modi fan Gopal Mishra told IANS that the city has already decided to go the Modi way. According to him, Modi's opponents are wasting their time. As the last phase of campaigning picks up in the city, residents facing endless snarl ups are already getting sick of the VIP attention. Aam Aadmi Party's Uttar Pradesh spokesman Vaibhav Maheshwari trashes the "Modi wave" claim and predicts an "impending upset" for the BJP star.
Hundreds of women supporters of the three major candidates -- Modi, Kejriwal and Rai -- sweat it out in the day and travel several kilometres on foot canvassing for their candidates. Workers wearing Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal masks can be seen everywhere -- along with various party flags.
The contest, though said by some to be one-sided, is not clearly a walkover for Modi because Kejriwal is working his way quietly in the lanes and bylanes, making one-on-one connect with the people. AAP supporters take out small rallies, with shehnai music, and impress upon the people the need to defeat Modi. A slogan war has broken out in the city. For the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is "Har har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi!" and "Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar!"
AAP workers counter with slogans of "Bahar niklo makaanon se, jang lad beimaanon se!" (Come out of your house, take on the dishonest!) The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have their time-tested slogans. The weaver community is being wooed relentlessly by everyone. They form more than 250,000 voters. The BJP is promising to restore the lost glory of the holy river Ganga. Modi has assured his supporters that Kashi -- as Varanasi is known -- will be the cleanest city in India by 2019. The party is hoping to ride on what it says is a Modi wave sweeping the country.
BJP Uttar Pradesh president Laxmikant Bajpayi claims that Modi's victory margin in Varanasi will be "stunningly high".