Writings on the wall: Before the secular dip, hold your nose

An evening spent watching the Aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat, However, reveals more writings of change. An evening spent watching the Aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat, However, reveals more writings of change.

Because this is Varanasi. Where the Gangs of Poorvanchal have come together to fight communal forces. Where a firebrand radical isn’t pleased they threw eggs at his rudraksh. Where, delightfully, Guptaji shows off his fish and chicken fry — and Brahmins can’t wait to give India its first OBC prime minister.

Having made only four really short visits as a reporter to Varanasi, spread over almost four decades, I can’t be so pretentious as to promise a definitive political profile of a city that defies adjectives but is, in its very own way, both the finest and most embarrassing embodiment of India’s diversity.

Think, to begin with, of the stories that brought me here on these four occasions. First, in 1983, to cover a never-ending strike at Banaras Hindu University. The university may have been shut but I returned a sophomore, if not a graduate yet, in caste politics. All this is not academic. It is about caste here, said young BHU leader Shatrudra Prakash and then gave me the mantra: “Brahmin, Thakur, Bhumihar, eastern UP, western Bihar.” I am happy to report that Prakash has done quite well in politics meanwhile. He is a formidable talking head for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) on Hindi news channels, and has even served as a cabinet minister in Lucknow.

Of course, he has found greater fame recently, when the police in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow’s equivalent of Delhi’s Lutyens, found in his official residence two cars with exactly the same number plate. Maybe he loved that number or probably because of numerological compulsions, both had the vanity plate of UP-65-AA-9999. Curiouser still, both cars apparently had security stickers for the state assembly and the chief minister’s residence. But both cars were rather modest, an Innova and a lowly Maruti Zen. A real socialist, still.

The second visit was in the summer of 1991, following Rajiv Gandhi’s campaign trail from Bihar via Buxar and Ghosi, from where the Congress party’s two funniest court jesters then contested, K.K. Tiwari (professor of English, he called V.P. Singh “Brutus” in Lok Sabha and later played a stellar role in hatching the failed St Kitts conspiracy to malign him) and Kalpnath Rai, who made his fame with that immortal pitch for his leader to Nutan Manmohan, then reporter for Madhu Trehan’s video magazine Newstrack: Rajiv Gandhi is a daeemond, daeemond (cupping his palms as if holding that diamond), don’t break it please.

A brittle daeemond, if you had ever seen one. He later defected to the Samata Party and threatened to pull down the dhoti of the then prime minister, Narasimha Rao, in Parliament. We finished that murderously hot day after Rajiv’s last rally at 1 am (yes, the Election Commission wasn’t such a girls’ convent Mother Superior then), and while eating dinner at a dhaba outside Varanasi railway station, we talked about how Rajiv, desperate to look accessible, was taking liberties with his security. He was assassinated at Sriperumbudur, his next campaign stop.

The third had to wait another 13 years, to record a Walk The Talk interview that I cherish most of all. It was, in fact, Ustad Bismillah Khan’s last interview. He was now fading but still gave me a tutorial on life, music, secular religiosity and the city he so loved. Why did he say no to Pakistan despite such allurements having been thrown at him? “Kyon, mera Benaras de sakte thhe woh kya mujhko? There can be no music without god, and you can’t confine god to any faith.” Every prayer, even a maulvi’s azan, he said, must be set to music, and so music is the sacred secular thread that ties all faiths together. “How can I play Bhairavi without first praying to Shankar bhagwan?” And so what if the Hindus won’t let him enter the temple? He could always go behind it, touch the wall along which the deity rested and come back to the shehnai blessed by Shiva. Do see that interview on the NDTV 24×7 website again (iexp.in/vXv84855). You will then be able to appreciate the difference between his Varanasi and ours today. All three main contestants are now chasing his descendants for secular endorsement.

MY FOURTH visit to Varanasi, for nearly three days, to watch the election campaign is my longest so far. But I am still a novice and safer, therefore, just looking at the writings on the wall to understand what is changing, and what isn’t.

The first is the stranglehold of caste. No, caste is not about to be banished in the very home of Brahminical ritual. But there is change. How else would you interpret a flourishing Guptaji Fish and Chicken Fry Centre at Jagat Ganj in Telibagh area, not so far from the holy Dashashwamedh Ghat, the venue for the stunning evening aarti and the Kashi Vishwanath temple? I guess our Gupta ji has merely to walk five minutes after earning the day’s bucks from selling merchandise his caste would so firmly prohibit and take a dip to leave his sins behind. But, more seriously, this election in Varanasi can no longer be explained with Shatrudra Prakash’s old caste mantra. This election is different.

Look up the history of this constituency. Barring the one Yadav from the Congress, it has always returned an upper caste, as you would expect from Varanasi (though, technically, two Jaiswals elected in the past are OBC in UP). Compare this with what is likely to happen this time. In Narendra Modi, Varanasi is going to elect its first real OBC, in the sense that the so-called upper castes are going to vote en masse for him. Let me use the usual qualification: if the opinion polls are right. Even though, what the hell, can’t we read such stark writings on the wall. Modi will be old, conservative, Brahminical Varanasi’s first-ever elected genuine OBC leader, defeating four relatively upper caste rivals, a Bhumihar (Ajay Rai of the Congress), three Banias, Arvind Kejriwal, the SP’s Kailash Chaurasia and the BSP’s Vijay Prakash Jaiswal. I am not sure who my favourite Gupta ji of fish and chicken fry fame will vote for, but his seat is now reserved for a supposedly lowly Teli (oil presser), a backward caste, whatever the Congress may say in protest. Even the favourite lyricist of all of us, Gulzar, had got into some trouble for his “Teli ka tel” line in his folksy foot-tapper “Dhan te nan” in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey.

The upper caste hold had been broken in the heartland a decade ago, with the SP, BSP and RJD building their own Dalit/ OBC coalitions with Muslims. But Modi’s arrival in Varanasi will create a first, an OBC chosen by those at the very apex of our caste pyramid to be our prime minister, no less. In an NDTV election discussion recently, when it was suggested that the Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh may be furious at the humiliation of their own Murli Manohar Joshi, I had said, somewhat cheekily, that for BJP supporters in UP, Modi is the first Brahmin. See me find vindication this Friday.

An evening spent watching the aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat, however, reveals more writings of change. Banners of the All India Nishad Samaj welcome you to the aarti. Nishads are a large OBC community of bird hunters and fishermen. The banners hail the greatest Nishad heroes through ancient mythology and contemporary history: Eklavya and Phoolan Devi. We are familiar with both. Phoolan, a most celebrated dacoit, became a heroine to her people for fighting upper caste oppression — she even won a Lok Sabha seat for the SP. And Eklavya, remember the legend? The Nishad prince was rejected by Guru Dronacharya because of his low caste. So he returned to the jungles, made a clay likeness of Dronacharya, learnt at its feet instead and became an archer way better than Arjuna.

Dronacharya wouldn’t accept that a lowly Nishad should be better than his favourite Kshatriya pupils, Kaurava or Pandava. He found a most notorious solution in our mythology: he asked Eklavya for his right thumb in gurudakshina so he would never be able to challenge Arjuna. It is in the name of the same Dronacharya that we have set up the biggest national award for our sporting coaches. Upper castes always win, you see, they tell us whom to worship, and how, and they write history too. Now you can appreciate why Mayawati makes such an impact with her assault on “Manuwad”. You can also then put the Nishad Samaj banners and the “Teli” Modi rising as the biggest hero of the upper castes in better perspective.

SADLY, some of Modi’s rivals are trying to fight with crime what they could not have done with caste alone. Meet the Congress party’s somewhat unlikely challenger to Modi, Ajay Rai. I run into him with the usual reporter’s luck, in the elevator at Varanasi’s shockingly decrepit Taj Ganges. It helps that he is accompanied by my old friend, Raj Babbar. The thick, wide swathe of sandal-paste on Babbar’s forehead tells me Rai has probably just taken him for a VVIP darshan of Kashi Vishwanath. I shamelessly push the Babbar connection to drag the reluctant don, or the bahubali, as they prefer to say in these parts, for a chat. Rai’s frame is short, squat and muscular, his long, drooping moustache quite benignly charming, and a clean-shaven head ensures you won’t miss him in a crowd.

Put a mop on his head and he would remind you of Tigmanshu Dhulia as bahubali Ramadhir Singh in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Rai’s alleged accomplishments in that area do not match Ramadhir’s, but the man the Congress has picked to save the republic from the “communal” Modi does have at least nine criminal cases against him. He is a listed history-sheeter and also charged under the Gangster Act. That very same morning, we had been invited for a very open conversation over a breakfast of aloo parathas by Amit Shah, and even before we sat down, he had very, very, very politely complained about my having asked in one of my National Interest columns what the BJP was smoking or drinking when it decided to send him to UP.

“I wanted to call you, Shekhar bhai, to convince you that I am not like that,” he had said, in a manner that told you deep down, he was still an old-fashioned Indian politician. But shake hands with Rai and you need to ask the Congress the same question: what were they smoking and/ or drinking when they picked him as their secular challenger? Or was the idea just to humiliate a rival, not much unlike the legend of the decadent, opium-smacked Mohammed Shah “Rangila”, one of the last Mughals, hurriedly raising an army of what will be called the third gender in these politically correct times to “fight” the marauding army of Nadir Shah.

These are strong words, I know, even borderline in a family newspaper, but I believe it would be dishonest, delusional, unpatriotic and even contra-secular to indulge in euphemisms here. It would take several pages if I attempted even a short history of what may be called Gangs Of Poorvanchal, but it is no less stirring than that of the mythical ones of Wasseypur, except that the antagonists’ faiths are swapped. To Rai’s Ramadhir Singh, the blood-feud enemy (Manoj Bajpayee’s Sardar Khan in the film) is don Mukhtar Ansari, currently running for nearby Ghosi (once clown Kalpnath Rai’s seat) from Agra Central Jail. See footage of him on YouTube and you can’t miss the broad chest thrust out, chin thrown nonchalantly in the air, and that dismissively arrogant gait. I will take some convincing that Bajpayee did not take a close look at him to prepare for that brilliant portrayal.

Ansari is in jail there for many seemingly good reasons. But two are particularly relevant. He is under trial for assassinating Ajay Rai’s brother, Awadhesh Rai, in the course of usual gang warfare over extortion territories in 1991, and later, BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai. He was returning from inaugurating a cricket match on November 29, 2005, and ambushed with AK-47s and other carbines. Even a country as rough as this has not seen a massacre like that. Hundreds of bullet casings were found at the spot. Krishnanand’s body had 21 bullets.

His driver, guard and four associates also took about as many. In fact, 67 were pulled out of their bodies, all 7.62 mm, automatic, except one single bolt-action slug from somewhere lower down in Krishnanand’s body. The legend goes that he was shot once to be ritually immobilised and then used for target practice. Many investigators threw up their hands in both cases. But the courts finally ensured Mukhtar and his brother Afzal (a candidate from Ballia) were put to trial. But why are we still telling such an involved story? Aren’t blood feuds normal in these parts? And, in any case, since 1989, the BJP and secular rivals have reduced local electoral politics to a communal riot by another name.

Please let me try and explain why it is not normal. Ajay and Mukhtar are enemies. The Ansaris and the Rais, the Bhumihar sub-caste indigenous to Ghazipur and which has given us some of our most respected civil servants, have been sworn enemies too. Such enemies that in the 2009 elections, when it looked like Mukhtar (then on a BSP ticket) might defeat Murli Manohar Joshi, Ajay (then on an SP ticket) transferred tens of thousands of his own caste votes overnight to the BJP. Joshi won by a mere 17,000 votes.
Again, an enemy’s enemy is your best friend. So what’s new?

But now Mukhtar, who was to contest from Varanasi to save secularism, first on the BSP ticket, and then on his own party’s, the Quami Ekta Dal’s (it is just him, two brothers and a few henchmen), has withdrawn in support of, hold your breath, Ajay Rai. As secular coalitions go, this must be the most spectacularly fraudulent and immoral ever. It will give the mafias a bad name. You want me to confuse — and infuriate — you further? Ajay, a five-term MLA, has been elected for the BJP thrice. So the Congress has found their mini Shankersinh Vaghela in Varanasi too. He has also been in the SP.

Mukhtar has been with the BSP in the past and now supports the Congress. As they would say in Varanasi, dono ney ghat-ghat ka paani piya hai. As soon as the election ends, the war will resume, in jail and outside. If this is the nature and quality of the allegedly secular challenge, you know why Modi and Amit Shah are so chill. We ask Ajay how he can join hands with his brother’s alleged killer. He says that is a separate issue, and the trial goes on while this is about keeping the secular vote together and for loyal Banarasis to join hands and beat the outsider, Modi.

I WON’T risk a wager on who will finish second in the race, but there is a reasonable chance it may even be Arvind Kejriwal. In which case, he will have emerged as Modi’s foremost secular challenger, ahead of the Congress, the SP and BSP, which are contesting only naam ke vaaste. The way Kejriwal has caught the Poorvanchali imagination is quite remarkable. Whatever the caste, any Banarasi is a political pundit and the line you hear often is, nobody can stop Kejriwal from finishing second. Or, more colourfully as we are told by Ashutosh Mishra, a school teacher in village Saidapur, 140 km away, “koi rok nahin sakta unko second aane se, bahut parishram kiye hain bhai, brand ban gaye hain Kejriwal.”

But, as any marketing person worth her Excel sheets will tell you, a brand needs to be nursed carefully, particularly when young and so filled with promise. Kejriwal may need to pause as he seems to be damaging his own brand with a combination of anger, ideological confusion and, frankly, political impatience.

His supporters may be fewer but are the most genuinely committed, even when you discount the happy hordes of children who provide heft and decibel to his processions, though they are in it mostly for the fun of playing mock sword-games with jhadoos. We see Kejriwal’s roadshow at Bachchaon Bazaar, about 10 km outside Varanasi on Chunar Road. But Kejriwal’s problem is not non-serious bachchas but his muddled message. Why am I in Varanasi when I could find an easy passage to Parliament from Delhi, he asks. Good question. It is because I haven’t come merely to become an MP but to defeat Modi, save India from this monster. So, conceded, good answer too. But why is Modi such a monster? Is he communal, a threat to secularism and thereby to India? Somehow, we didn’t hear that from Kejriwal.

He is a deadly threat, he says, because he is in the pocket of Ambani and Adani, and here, I have the documents to prove that. He pulls out one sheaf of papers after another, rather in the fashion of a pamphleteer in a faux fury than a visionary new, young, liberal anti- corruption crusader, which was supposed to be his brand. But he is blowing it. He would have a very arguable case if he said he was out to save India from Modi because of his threat to secularism. This would have also expanded his already significant Muslim support. But help me defeat Modi to save you from Ambani and Adani? Tell me another. And deep inside Poorvanchal, frankly, who are they? You say Modi will sell the Ganga to them. Why are you insulting Banarasi intellect? You say the price of gas will go up four times. Who has ever bought gas here? You say then the price of my fertiliser and electricity will go up four-fold. But I am smart enough to know fertiliser prices are administered and subsidised, and who thinks of bijli ka bill, living with 20-hour power cuts.

And just how secular is your message? It raises a laugh when he mocks Modi’s claim that he has come to Varanasi on the call of maa Ganga. “Then why did you go back without meeting the maa,” Kejriwal asks. Then, carried away by the cheers from the hundred-odd, he takes you to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, where he had gone to pray. The priests there, he said, gave him a holy rudraksh mala but when he came out, the BJP people struck that mala with eggs, “they struck the rudraksh with eggs,” he says, can you trust them in Benaras?

Well, the kaafir in me would say for sure you can trust the BJP “missile” throwers with their accuracy or nishanebazi. But seriously, is that supposed to be a secular pitch? And on rudraksh? Or is Kejriwal trying to out-Hindu the Hindu hridaya samrat? At the risk of a social media avalanche of muck and abuse, let me simply say I am not convinced Kejriwal has got his pitch right. I suspect he isn’t convinced either. Therefore, a respectable runner-up is the best possible prospect for him. And that will be good enough to earn him and his party national recognition as no political start-up has done within a year in India’s history.

Postscript: The cruellest and the most loaded heartland canard is that its decline started with the (lower) caste-based parties, the rise of Mulayam, Mayawati, Lalu. Varanasi is QED proof that this is all a horrible fallacy. It has mostly voted upper castes, including many formidable Brahmins, and nobody has done anything to reverse its rot.

Everything in the city is putrefying and falling apart. No sewer or drainage was ever built, so crap lies piled up in front of homes, shops, at the ghats and its holiest temples. Accepted that this is where good Hindus came to die, but must there be a mystique to everything being dysfunctional here — even thousands of corpses are shoved into the river half-burnt. I too was born a Hindu and though not devout, am god-fearing — anybody who has somebody to love, family, dogs and cats, usually is. But I refuse to see any romance in being cheated even on the funeral pyre.

I know we love cows, and that Lord Shiva rides a bull, but must you have scores of them milling with thousands of people on the ghats and splashing your feet with urine delivered from several feet above? I’m sorry, but I cannot bear to go to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, wading through filth and slush, or take a dip in the sewer that passes for the Ganga. On the walk to Dashashwamedh, you will see Lucknow Chikan Shop on the right, “chikankari” as in the lightly embroidered kurtas and saris.

But why is an imposing bull painted on its signboard? Because apparently, a bull comes and sits in the middle of the emporium every morning. It’s a likely Varanasi fairytale. The BBC has covered it, Manish Kumar Jha, NDTV’s Patna-based senior editor and the best-informed fellow traveller to have in Poorvanchal, tells me. Smart bull, too, knows the shop is cool inside. Varanasi also flaunts the bull in the chikan shop syndrome, which, truth to tell, neither gives me the calm of spirituality nor awakens anybody’s kundalini. Unless, of course, you lean back on hash, thandai laced with bhaang and tharra. But is that how we want our holiest city to be? I am consciously using that line, but there has to be redemption for our holiest city. There has to be a Varanasi beyond the quaint exotica of Lonely Planet. That is the change even the Banarasis now want. That’s why the yearning for badlaav.

(This concludes the series of Writings on the Wall in the 2014 national elections. For earlier articles, please see the IE website, iexp.in/CfN84861, and my Facebook page)
sg@expressindia.com