Fifth Column: A dangerous disconnect
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 continued…