On a magic carpet in Varanasi

Dipankar Gupta taught sociology in JNU for nearly three decades. He is currently interested in social policy with particular reference to citizenship. His recent books include Talking Sociology (2018), We, the Citizens of India: Democracy’s Must Take Road (2017) and QED: India tests Social Theory (2017)
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Now that the election is done and dusted, hot flushes will give way to quieter thoughts. Some will ask: “Have we chosen wisely?”
Like all things fiery, elections have a pleasurable build-up, a climax, and then an emptiness that makes you wonder if it was worth it after all. It was during the anticipatory phase of this multiple stage process that we decided to go to Varanasi. We were welcomed by a hoarding near the city’s airport, narcissistically announcing that we were now in India’s most important constituency.

I have been to Varanasi several times before; often as many as three times a year. Unlike many, I was never drawn to it, nor did I find the self-indulgent filth of the place fetching. What took me there in those days were the carpet weavers who, until about 2009 controlled 11 per cent of the world’s trade in carpets, but made only a pittance. It was the carpetbaggers, those hardnosed middle men, who made all the cash. I could never stop marvelling, even after I learnt the mechanics of the trade, how the lowly hovels in which weavers toiled were actually connected to global markets.

Varanasi city for me was a stop-over to get to the neighbouring villages; where carpet weavers slogged, raised restless kids and then died, often painfully. Their children resented them and the bitter undercurrents between parent and child could spark off an angry encounter at any time. Being stuck to a loom in a village is the next worst thing to being stuck to a plough.


Several years have passed since those sojourns. This was a different kind of Varanasi visit. Elections had charged up the place and many were indeed hopeful that this voting season, unlike those before it, would bring about something different. Now that the results are known, how many, I wonder, are already considering whether it was worth it after all? At any rate, unlike my previous visits, this time I planned to explore the city, walk the ghats, visit a few temples and breathe in the strong air of its narrow alleys. I thought this trip might prove that my initial qualms about Varanasi were ill-founded. I knew it could not be love at first sight—that moment was long gone—but perhaps a long, lingering look would change matters.


The first surprise was waiting on the flight from Delhi to Varanasi. Almost half the seats were taken by Gujaratis, who had no problems at all in announcing themselves as Modi partisans. Actually, they did not have to do much to make this known; their very numbers in a concentrated place 30,000 feet in the air said it all. My neighbour was a legislator who in fact was representing the very area in Surat where I had lived for over a year in the late 1970s.

This plane-load of Gujarati Modi partisans should have prepared me for the fact that Varanasi had been taken over by outsiders peddling their political wares. Modi supporters, AAP activists, even Congress workers were nearly always from some other city or from states far away from Uttar Pradesh. While Varanasi residents stayed put at home—or went about minding their business—it was people like me who roamed the streets generating political gossip, or dressing some up, mannequin style.


After sunset the ghats were full of activists from outside Varanasi; now combining business with a spot of pleasure. It is interesting how all of that seemed so relevant until the results were announced . For the victors, the past has already turned stale; the future is now theirs. The vanquished, on the other hand, are searching for explanations to take some of the hurt away.

Though the riverside is not a pleasant sight—the propaganda of Varanasi worshippers at Harvard notwithstanding—the street theatres still manage to fill the air with some joy. Now, at last the sun is down and the light is low, except for the bulbs around push-carts and restaurants in the area. In this fading dusk penumbra, the contents of the murky river are not easily visible to the naked eye. This gives the election-based festivities a certain presence that we outsiders have probably captured with our cameras.

Obviously, Ganga Ma needs a clean-up urgently; but surprisingly, this does not top the agenda of most people who live around the river. Men and women are still taking their dips, gargling the water, putting their fingers down their throats so that they can expectorate generously into the river. The one person who is really worried about Ganga Ma’s cleanliness is the mahant of Varanasi’s famous—and highly revered—Sankat Mochan temple.

Now comes the real surprise. The mahant is not your everyday mumbo-jumbo rattler-in-chief; he is, in fact, a professor of engineering at Varanasi’s reputed and well-established IIT.

The mahant, Professor Mishra, offers us prasad and tea with a touching mix of formality and affection. He tells us at length what his plans are for the river and how hard his late father fought for this cause—in vain. But he has not given up hope, not yet. He says, with some sense of accomplishment, that he had managed to get a formal acceptance of his clean-up proposal from all the three major political players in this election. This, then, is payback time; will the Varanasi victor now deliver on his promise?

I ask him about Arvind Kejriwal while trying to quickly remedy my stereotyped view of a mahant, already beginning to feel foolish inside my skin for once loudly complaining in Delhi that Kejriwal had no business to plonk himself in a temple, and at the Sankat Mochan at that. I had no idea then of who the mahant was—nor that he and Kejriwal are friends because of their common technical background and training.

“Kejriwal was my personal guest, like many other personal guests,” says the mahant. “Why should people complain about this? Just because he is now a politician does not mean I must withdraw my friendship.” That made a lot of sense to me and I was secretly happy that the mahant would never get to know of my outburst against Kejriwal taking residence at Sankat Mochan. Can I be held entirely responsible? Ask yourself, can there be another mahant of a major Hindu temple who is also a professor of Engineering?


The Bangali Tola is by the Dasaswamedh ghat, and full of RSS sympathisers and Modi supporters; but outsiders were here too, till election day, and in even numbers with the locals. During canvassing time, children between six and 10 years of age were wearing Modi masks and moving in processions that were about 20 strong. From their full-blooded sloganeering to the veins sticking out of their throats, they did their best to imitate their elders; so what if a whole bunch of them had come from outside? I ask a young fellow, pushing 12: “Why Modi?” Promptly, he replies: “We want jobs.” Taken aback, I ask, “But you must be in school?” “Yes,” comes the cheeky reply, “but I’ll need a job one day!” The trickle-down theory is clearly at work here; most adult BJP voters in Varanasi are overwhelmingly for Modi, the job giver.

Bangali Tola has more Bengalis per square foot than Kolkata’s Chowringhee, but it is not Mamata Banerjee who is the reigning deity here. A middle-aged Muslim man who happened to be passing by was immediately stopped by the youths and a BJP scarf was draped around his neck. He did not dare take it off, but he was not happy at all. What is he thinking of now?

Before we go further down this path, let me also add that among the people I saw bathing and splashing in the ghat was a Muslim, wearing a distinctive beard. I saw this as a contradiction until I was told that in Varanasi, the Ganga belongs to all. That may well be true, but if it is, then this would be a stark example of syncretic culture; not all romantic, but basically, good common sense and common convenience.

The famous Pappu Tea Shop—where, we were told, political views were constantly being formed and re-formed—was a first-class disappointment. Nothing very grand was happening there even with an election round the corner. Nobody was discussing politics in any depth, or with any insight. In fact, the customers at the tea stall would only occasionally talk politics, and more often than not, they were just plain wisecracking.

Apart from Modi, the BJP had no other star attraction. Five days before the election, Amit Shah addressed a crowd of business people, only some of whom were from Varanasi. The venue, however, was half full at best. Perhaps to save themselves the embarrassment, the organisers instructed the tent providers to quietly remove some chairs without drawing attention. Amit Shah gave a thundering speech to an inattentive and sparse audience and repeatedly raised his arms and bellowed, “Har, har, Modi!” I have not seen Modi do that yet, nor I believe, has Arun Jaitley, but here was Amit Shah in full flow.


His address is quite clear now, but in those days when he was on his campaign trail, it was not easy to find Arvind Kejriwal. Obviously, we were looking out for him—anybody would— but where was he? The Aam Aadmi Party had no central office in Varanasi, and no election manager like what Modi had in Amit Shah. Quite by chance, we got wind that Kejriwal was on a road show about 12 kilometres from Varanasi; so off we went in that direction. We came across a makeshift AAP office en-route, confirming that we were on the right track; and as we kept driving, we suddenly saw in the distance a dense column of raised brooms (AAP’s jhaadus) and knew that we had not erred in finding our way.

Approaching this broom-lined, bustling and chaotic passage, one could not help but get a goose-bumpy feeling of being part of a carnival. Kejriwal spoke standing on a jeep and spun out the usual litany against big capitalists and rapacious politicians in dubious alliance. He warned his audience that Modi meant crony capitalism. I have heard this spiel many times, as, I suspect, have many others; but there was rapt attention and then tumultuous applause when he finished. His next stop was a village where a makeshift stage had been set up. He spoke of the same things again and again, and people listened. If I had known the results then as I do now, I wonder how I would have interpreted my impressions of that moment.

What clearly delighted me, however, was the presence of different castes in the crowd. There were no ritual separation between jatis, nor was it that all members of a caste were Kejriwal supporters. Some were Modi groupies, but others were not. If only those who peddle caste calculations at election time had been present, I am sure they would have gulped, swallowed and said “Very sorry!”

However, you can never be too sure; nobody wants to admit guilt or defeat. If the contest between Modi and Kejriwal were to be decided by rural votes alone, then the broom would have swept in a higher vote percentage. The city, very clearly, is where the BJP is stronger and that is there for all to see.

There remains, however, this one big fly in Modi’s ointment: the Muslim community of bunkars, or weavers. They were, almost without exception for Kejriwal, and utterly put off by established parties. The colony—basti— of these weavers is probably the most depressing and degraded part of the city. About 400,000 people are packed in a dense neighbourhood littered with all kinds of garbage, with not a single government school in sight.

There are just two madrassas, one public and one private, and the only education they offer is till Class 8. No wonder the bunkars are angry: so many elections have come and gone and nobody has so far cared to set up a proper school or even a proper medical centre. Besides, this time around, Modi kind-of frightens them. They have heard about Gujarat and they know a lot about the RSS, and they find the combination unsettling. We found four AAP flags, one ragged SP flag, but no other symbol of any other party. Now that all that is well in the past, are the bunkars still entitled to hope?

In the rest of the city, Modi’s presence was stronger, but what will remain an enduring question is how Kejriwal made it this far. When it all began, he had no organisation to speak of, not in Varanasi, not even in the region. There was a time, till not too long ago, when AAP activists were being beaten up at random. But, a Varanasi resident told me, this would not happen again because AAP now has local support. “Touch him now,” he said, “and you might get beaten so bad that your fever will vanish in an instant.”

Now that the election is done and dusted, hot flushes will give way to quieter thoughts. Some will ask: “Have we chosen wisely? Will Varanasi really see good times ahead?”