“Arre, e sabka topi pehnawat hai (They are taking everyone for a ride),” says the man with a Samajwadi Party badge clipped to his shirt pocket, prompting a sheepish Ranjeet, owner of a tea stall in Varanasai’s Shivala Ghat, to quickly take off his white AAP cap.
In walks Rajesh Jaiswal, a former BJP MLA. Reaching into a bag, he takes out samples: “These are Modi masks for kids, BJP caps, and stickers for our door-to-door campaign.” That, in turn, angers an AAP volunteer, who walks out of the tea stall, waving his hand and shouting, “Mitron, Jai Hind, Jai Bharat”, apparently in an imitation of Narendra Modi.
Politics has long been a staple at Varanasi’s tea stalls, but the entry of self-claimed tea vendor Modi has turned up the heat. Ranjeet’s stall is buzzing even on a lazy early Sunday morning, as the countdown to May 12 voting day begins.
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Ranjeet (he only gives his first name) has been running the stall for 30-odd years and calls himself a staunch BJP supporter. Modi smiles down from posters all across his stall. Dismissing his AAP cap, he says: “Is there a ban on having some fun? Whatever cap I wear, I will support the BJP.”
Walk up the famous Assi Ghat and you cannot miss Pappu ki chai ki dukaan, said to be Varanasi’s oldest and most popular. Amit Bharti, playing music outside the stall, says he is part of the AAP’s “buzz team” — an impromptu, four-member band that includes a guitarist. Local musicians pitch in.
Inside Pappu’s stall, a BJP supporter wearing a saffron cap discusses how Congress candidate Ajay Rai is already a “loser” because of the party’s alliance with Mukhtar Ansari, who is in jail for the murder of his brother Avdhesh Rai.
As one AAP member walks inside to put up posters, owner Manoj Kumar Singh, a fourth-generation tea vendor, breaks off briefly from a TV interview to beckon him. “E hamaar Facebook waal hai, lagai do (this is my Facebook wall, put them up),” Manoj laughs. The wall has posters of various parties, including of Modi’s chai pe charcha event of last February. The Gujarat chief minister has been holding chai pe charcha events at tea stalls, where he fields screened questions by people from across the country on video.
Manoj proudly shows a local newspaper that featured him recently, with a sepia picture of his tea stall from decades ago. “I have become world famous because of Modi. This is his blessing,” says the vendor whose father was initially tipped to be among the proposers for Modi’s nomination. “Kejriwal also had tea at my stall,” Manoj adds. He also claims to have seen Modi once, when he came to Varanasi around 12 years back.
Manoj claims his stall is famous because he makes tea differently, going on to demonstrate. The glasses are grouped together. Hot water is poured from a kettle and the glasses rinsed. Every glass then gets a spoonful of sugar, followed by hot milk and black tea to complete the ubiquitous brew, sold for Rs 5 a cup.
“Because of the way we make it, we offer black tea, lemon tea and every kind to cater to all tastes,” expounds Manoj.
A few metres down, in Shivala Mohalla, Jaafar has been running a tea stall for three-four years. A group of elderly men sits quietly on the bench outside as the ones inside pore over the day’s newspapers. Shaukat Mirza, 90, sitting on the bench, says they are with the AAP. “Kejriwal is a young, imaandaar candidate.”
Zahir Anwar, a textile businessman, is angry about inflation and says, “We want a government that treats everyone the same way, do nigaahon se nahin dekhe (doesn’t discriminate)”.
Claiming to have visited Surat often, he talks about the “ghettoisation” there. “In Gujarat, the society is divided. We see this in the Chakla Bazaar, Mithi Khadi areas of Surat. In Benaras, we all live together.”
Haaji Noor Alam Khan ‘Shastri’ — a title he earned after a masters degree from Vidya Bharati — pipes in excitedly. The 72-year-old wants the new government to give voters the right to recall an MP. “Why not?” he says. “From the time I wake up, I pay tax — for my bath, water, food, education, power. And after I earn, I pay income tax. Why should my vote be wasted?”