In Varanasi, Both Akhilesh Yadav and Narendra Modi Face a Tough Journey Ahead

While demonetisation and the resultant hardships have tarnished the reputation of the BJP-led central government, the Samajwadi Party's record of criminalised politics may become a roadblock for it.

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh: For several residents of Varanasi, even those who have decided to remain positive, choosing the next leaders when they go to polls on March 8 seems like having to choose from among several evils.

The Wire spoke to residents about what they see as the pros and cons of the main contenders and their plans regarding development and infrastructure, employment and civic harmony.

Two parties – the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress – are spoken of, for differing reasons, in the past tense, with disenchantment and nostalgia. The two parties that are a part of the debate in the present tense are the Samajwadi Party (SP), which is currently in power in Uttar Pradesh and recently formed an alliance with the Congress, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre.

The SP is marred by its record of criminalised politics and its failure to deliver on the development front. The BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has made some bold and ambitious promises for the city, especially under the schemes of Smart Cities and Swachh Bharat. However, demonetisation and the resultant hardships to the people have tarnished the reputation of the central government, especially in the eyes of the poor and the working class.

Since the prime minister ran and won in 2014 with Varanasi as his constituency, the question that remains pertinent for its residents is – what have his decisions specifically done for their betterment?

The Modi government’s Varanasi constituency website emphasises “creating state-of-the-art tourist and infrastructure facilities” for the city, though it doesn’t spell out the specifics. According to other reports, here are all the promises Modi has made to the people of Varanasi since being elected:

  • Sewage treatment and solid waste management systems
  • A clean and rejuvenated Ganga
  • Cleaning and maintenance of the ghats
  • Drinking water to households
  • Solar-powered lighting in public spaces
  • Underground wiring of electrical cables
  • A ring road to decongest the city and four-lane roads
  • A metro rail system
  • Broadband
  • Battery-powered rickshaws
  • Luxury cruises down the Ganga
  • A music academy to preserve the Banaras gharana
  • A facilitation centre for handloom weaving
  • A Bhojpuri film city

Work on some of these projects has visibly begun, such as the introduction of battery-powered rickshaws, the physical building that will house the handloom trade facilitation centre, minimal cleaning of some ghats and the underground laying of electrical cables. However, even after the allocation of crores of rupees, most of the work is yet to begin.

Most residents are unclear about what the plans and timelines are, what work is in which stage of completion and exactly who – the state or the Centre – is doing what.

The BJP’s Hindutva ideology has also provoked critical questions in a city that widely prides itself on its syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, built on silk weaving, an industry that has been powerfully hit by demonetisation.

Also watch: Why Weavers From Varanasi Are Committing Suicide

Many respond to the question mark that now seems to be hovering over Modi’s name with marked defensiveness and optimism, claiming that it takes great leaders time to achieve great things and that this one will prove true to his word.

His main rival, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, is similarly spoken of with much hope, for being ‘young’, ‘energetic’, ‘intelligent’, ‘forward-looking’ and ‘honest’, thus offering the possibility of reformed and efficient governance.

The SP’s surprise coalition with the Congress has also produced hopeful suspense, especially for those pointedly critical of the BJP’s ‘hypocrisy’ and fearful of what a BJP win might mean for Hindu-Muslim relations in the city.

Gazala, 42, housewife, wife of a sari businessman

When the time comes for elections, all the parties say they will do this or that. But once they win, they push us [Muslims] to the side and retreat on their promises. I can’t see any differences between the parties. We, the people of Madanpura, don’t have any real hopes from any of them. We vote but it yields no results. Lots of announcements have been made about weavers and lakhs of rupees issued. But that money never reaches us.


Gazala. Credit: Nandini Majumdar

We take care of the household, the family. What affects the businessmen affects us as well, the women, the children. We are also a part of the sari business by doing the smaller, home-based jobs. Demonetisation has ruined our business. This is usually the peak time for us, the main time in the year that we earn. But the government suddenly took this decision, without any plan for us.

If the BJP comes to power it will affect the good Hindu-Muslim relations in the city. Hindu-Muslim harmony will always prevail in Banaras because of the sari business. But people who have a different kind of mindset will be encouraged if the BJP wins. It is the politicians who meddle with the way people think. 

Ashish Jaiswal, 30, Hindustani vocal PhD student

I am confused. When I observe our PM, I feel hopeful. It seems like we are making a new beginning. But then I go to the petrol pump and see that the price of petrol has gone up. I support demonetisation, I support all the plans and schemes. But the question is, how do you change people’s mindsets, how do you bring about actual change?

Ashish Jaiswal

Ashish Jaiswal. Credit: Nandini Majumdar

I am completely against the distribution of laptops or smartphones just before the election. If you really want to do something, why don’t you organise computer workshops with children in rural areas? Then ‘Digital India’ would actually mean something. Why don’t the leaders go from door to door to inspire and educate people? Swachh Bharat will only work when people’s habits change and you can only change habits if you go door to door.

Akhilesh Yadav is also pushing development. But one of the problems is the difference between state and central policies. Take the talk of making Banaras a smart city. Each party is doing its own thing, and only for winning votes. The fact is there is no bigger plan for the city, no larger control.

Modi ji says he will turn Banaras into Kyoto. But I say that Banaras has to be developed on its own unique model. Why have all the ponds and kunds (old reservoirs) been filled up? Why are old buildings being broken down? Why are high-rises being built in the most crowded parts and cars being allowed to go down the narrow roads? Banaras is not just a city but also a lifestyle, a philosophy. That must be preserved.

Modi ji also needs to think carefully, as a PM, as a member of a party, as a human being, about Hindu-Muslim relations. I have seen riots in Banaras with my own eyes. I have seen how madness can take over normal, sane people. This needs to be thought about very carefully, on the level of humanity.

Brijesh Yadav, 48, lassi shop owner

It is Baba Vishwanath’s kripa that Modi ji has attained the post he has. Where there is great responsibility, big decisions have to be taken – and big mistakes are also sometimes made. But the main thing is that for those decisions to have results and real change to happen, it is the people who have to follow the leader. Modi ji has taken good steps for the future of the country. It will take time for people to follow him and his policies addressing corruption and cleanliness. But it’s certain that if not tomorrow, then the week after, people will.

The new Budget has good provisions for poor people, women and farmers. Taking everything into account, Modi ji has done good work. But so has Akhilesh ji. It’s quite a puzzle. It is very unclear who will win the upcoming elections.

Brothers Manoj (L) and Brijesh Yadav (R) at their lassi shop

Brothers Manoj (left) and Brijesh Yadav at their lassi shop. Credit: Nandini Majumdar

Manoj Yadav, 45, lassi shop owner

So the PM took this step to eliminate black money. But how much black money was actually returned to the government? And have the richest of the rich, the most corrupt, even been caught? The PM’s entire system is failing.

Since Akhilesh become the chief minister, he has worked for infrastructure, education, employment and women’s rights. Varanasi is Modi ji’s constituency. But what has he ever done for Varanasi? He came and posed with a spade by Ganga ji. But go and look at the state of Ganga ji. We live by Ganga ji but are forced to buy bottled water to drink. We are of a community that bathes in the river twice a day.

The people here know how to survive under any conditions. It’s their habit to not raise their voices, no matter what the situation is.

Shivanshi Shukla, 18, Hindi student

The BJP should be given a chance in UP. They are trying hard. All of the parties are full of criminals but this is more of a problem with the SP.

Shivanshi Shukla (L) and Raksha Jha (R)

Shivanshi Shukla (left) and Raksha Jha. Credit: Nandini Majumdar

It was wrong of Akhilesh to bring family matters into politics. Also, the SP gave out laptops to students (I got one) – but many poor students didn’t get them and many undeserving people did.

Ratna Jha, 18, Art History student

It is true that the SP is full of gundas. But the party that comes to power should be a party that knows the region well; the leader in power should be of that place.


Waseem Akhtar, 52, handloom weaver

One or two central government schemes were devised for weavers in the past year or so but nothing has come of them.

The SP government has given laptops to poor children. Bajardiha (a weaving neighbourhood in north Varanasi) is a very backward place. The state government fixed up a three kilometre portion of it. Two or three months ago the woodworkers here (the neighbourhood of Kashmiriganj) were given new tools.

The prime minister of our country should be the kind of person who doesn’t distinguish between people based on religion or caste. In the past Lok Sabha elections, the BJP party gave only two Muslims tickets. Now, in the current state elections, the BJP has not given a single Muslim a ticket. Why?

Waseem Akhtar in his handloom workshop

Waseem Akhtar in his handloom workshop. Credit: Nandini Majumdar

Since 1984 they have been talking about the Ram Mandir. There have been many riots and people have even died because of this issue. Now this is the second time since 1984 that the BJP has come to power. And again they say they will build the Ram Mandir. Religion and politics should be kept separate. People are asking, will Modi ji only do puja or will he also take responsibility for people’s survival? You can’t do puja on an empty stomach.

As for demonetisation, no crorepati stood in line for a two thousand rupee note. It was ordinary people who suffered – some people have even died. I ask, what have you done for them? We [weavers] have been out of work for two months because of demonetisation. Our business has come to a standstill.

The government has raised the price of silk thread. So the price of the sari should also go up and weavers should earn more. We don’t know how much the middlemen are selling the saris for, but they definitely raise their prices, while they always pay us the same amount. What we want of the government is that they either fix the prices or get rid of the middlemen. Modi ji inaugurated a big centre for weavers to trade directly, without middlemen. But absolutely no work has begun there.

Pushpa, 36, cook

My friends and I have discussed it. Modi ji is doing a good job. He has opened zero-balance accounts and gives us Rs 1,500 every three months. We have gotten that amount two or three times so far. He has also said that every house should have a bathroom. We filled out his form and got Rs 8,000 for building bathrooms in our houses. (The total amount was supposed to be Rs 15,000 but other people took their portions of the money – like the person who fills out the form – and we got Rs 8,000.)

Pushpa in her kitchen

Pushpa in her kitchen

Also, a truck went around telling everyone not to throw garbage on the road. They distributed and installed dustbins. The dustbins have his [Modi] name on them.

I used to vote for Mayawati but I don’t understand her anymore. She hasn’t done anything for poor people.

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