Varanasi, in southeast Uttar Pradesh, is the second oldest inhabited city of its size that is still busy. Lebanon, with three times more population, is the only other city that claims older origins although smaller areas in Greece and Syria are possibly the oldest recorded settlements.
Varanasi is an incredible leveller – people come here for a final moral stocktaking or to let go of the departed. Now, the city is in the final lap of its biggest political battle ever – BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal are in a high profile contest.
Here then is the latest from Varanasi.
Modi friends look to invest
Whatever Modi does, he does with company. His friends from Gujarat, many of them businessmen, seem to reach before he does. Varanasi’s trading and business community is currently in a good mood because of the interest some Gujarati investors are showing in the city.
Biogas, real estate and tourism are a few sectors anticipating an upswing after 16 May. Varanasi has huge piles of cow dung that are flung into its drains every day. The locals think Gujarati entrepreneurs might help convert it to valuable biogas.
Bharat Ratnas in smart BJP office
Days ago Amit Shah opened the Varanasi election headquarters of the BJP and they haven’t stopped taking about it since.
The office is in a swanky and expensive high rise where no other party can venture. The apartment block might be more in place in Mumbai or New Delhi with a huge community centre on the ground floor and plenty of parking spaces currently filled with SUVs from all over.
The BJP has two apartments on the fourth floor too, all of which is causing heartburn in rivals. Varanasi BJP general secretary Sudhir Mishra says a friend has offered the space free for a month. This friend is a son of a former Congress senior who has switched camp.
It is a bit of a shock to see the BJP thrive in their presence.
Family feud hurts Congress
Modi and Shah seem to have checkmated Congress candidate Ajay Rai who is otherwise putting in much effort. Rai pulled off a coup of sorts by getting sworn enemy and local don Mukhtar Ansari to support him with Muslim vote.
Ansari is prime accused in the murder of Rai’s brother Krishnanand, who was also a don. But all this was wasted when Modi and Shah got Krishnanand’s widow Alka to issue a statement attacking Ajay Rai.
Alka said Ajay has shamed their Bhumihar community, a Hindu upper caste that feeds off pride, by supping with his brother’s killer.
Muslims too are not solidly in one place – many appear to be with Arvind Kejriwal.
Kejriwal finds it tough
The Aam Aadmi Party has no base vote in Varanasi and this works against them. Kejriwal’s efforts might have delivered victory in another constituency, possibly even Amethi. But he has picked on Modi for whom the Varanasi election has become synonymous with prestige.
Kejriwal slogs through the day, beginning at dawn and ending past midnight. But all he has are AAP volunteers and workers from Delhi and other metros. They don’t count in Varanasi.
His obvious credentials as the David in the battle of the Goliaths have won him some support but it may not be enough. It would be a terrific show if he goes past a lakh votes.
The future of Varanasi
There is huge economic potential in Varanasi which, ideally, ought to have been as clean and influential as Rome. The place is awash with mom and pop yoga centres, wrestling akharas, meditation hubs, nature cure services and palmistry experts. Even small malls have come in.
But the famous Banarasi paan and the Banarasi sari – two big contributions from here – are struggling. Scores of old havelis, small palaces and forts and temples are in states of decay.