They waited for hours under a scorching sun to catch a glimpse of Narendra Modi. And, when he finally came, they shouted ‘Hello Modi’ as if he could hear them. In seconds he was gone, but they were happy to have seen him. I asked a young man in a Modi T-shirt why he supported him, and he said, “He will bring us ‘vikas’ like he has done in Gujarat.” I pointed out that he was a politician not a magician, and he replied, “We believe that when it comes to development, he is a magician.”
Afterwards I tweeted that I had covered every election since 1977 and had never seen anything like the frenetic fervour of the crowds on the streets of Benaras. This caused a torrent of insults on Twitter, so I went that evening to Papu’s chai shop for a reality check. At this teashop in a teeming, squalid square near the Assi Ghat gather politicians, thinkers, philosophers, political analysts and students. They sit on wooden benches near an open drain and discuss the problems of the world. On an earlier visit, I discovered that the level of political discourse was higher than in Delhi because people speak without worrying about being labelled ‘fascist’ or ‘communal’.
This time I found myself sitting between a historian from BHU and a retired museum curator. They said of that morning’s crowds that they had never seen such an exhibition of political support before in Benaras. I asked why Modi was so popular and they said people were desperate for real change. For Benaras, they want municipal infrastructure and the Ganga to be cleaned. For India, they want a leader who will stand up to “insults” from China and Pakistan, and in terms of “vikas”, they want economic policies that will create prosperity and jobs. They told me of the hopelessness of public services in education and healthcare and said these could be easily improved with good governance.
Since I first discovered signs of a Modi wave in rural Rajasthan last summer, I have been reporting in this column that development and governance were going to be the big issues in this election. For my pains, I have been labelled anti-Muslim, anti-Sonia and fascist. There are other charges unrepeatable in a family newspaper. What has intrigued me most is the arrogant assumption that it is wrong to support Modi. Famous editors and public intellectuals have gone public with their love for Sonia Gandhi and her children and this is considered normal, but unless you compare Modi to Hitler, you are an intellectual pariah. If this is liberalism, we better learn to live without it because more than half of India is likely to end up in the pariah box after this election.
What these pariahs want from Modi is not just development but magic, so in the 60 months that he has asked for, he better be able to magically transform India. This is because in no other election have I seen aspirations raised to such a pitch. In earlier elections, such things as secularism and charisma mattered more. What is worrying is that this changed political reality has been so poorly reflected in the national debate that our poor, dear prime minister said on the day Modi stormed Benaras that the Modi wave was a “media creation”.
Has he not noticed that most of the media hates Modi? I have met eminent editors and celebrated TV anchors who have admitted this openly and till not long ago were certain that Modi would not win a single seat outside Gujarat. Modi frightens most of us ‘intellectuals’ because in our leftist, liberal little hearts, we know that he brings with him not just political change but a revolution. This could bring to the fore the sort of people who gather in Papu’s chai shop and land our more renowned public intellectuals in history’s dustbin.
Let me say that personally I cannot wait for this to happen because for too long we, with the loudest voices in the media, have failed to reflect what is really happening in India and the real problems of ordinary Indians. In our constricted, English-speaking, colonised world, we have never dared to admit even that mass education in our country is churning out young people who leave English-medium schools without being able to speak either English or their own languages.
And, this is only one of the grim problems that remain unmentioned as we babble on daily about secularism and communalism and how India will be destroyed if Modi becomes prime minister. Let me state clearly that if he destroys the India created by 67 years of Congress-style secularism and socialism, he will be doing India a real service. Now that is something we should be talking about!
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh