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In Varanasi, chai pe charcha is just about Modi

May 07, 2014 12:54 IST

In Varanasi, chai pe charcha is just about Modi

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Anita Katyal

These days, a good dose of Narendra Modi is served along with piping hot tea at Varanasi's favourite melting pot, Pappu ki Adi. Differing voices are silenced at once, discovers Rediff.com contributor Anita Katyal.

A visit to Varanasi is incomplete without a trip to 'Pappu ki Adi' near the city's famous Assi Ghat for a swig of its special lemon tea (or 'liquor' tea as it is called here) and animated discussions with the locals who frequent this place.

Pappu ki Adi has been a meeting spot for the city's thinkers of differing political hues for decades now.

The intense discussions, conducted over endless cups of steaming tea, cover a wide range of topics -- Marx, Nehruvian thought, Lohia-ism, even Kafka.

Differing viewpoints were heard and challenged, but always respected.

Today those who gather at Pappu ki Adi speak in one voice. There are few divergent views. And even if there are, these are invariably drowned out by the others.

Novelist Kashinath Singh maintains that Pappu ki Adi has become a "Bhajapaiyon ka adda (the den of Bharatiya Janata Party supporters), but I felt the discourse here essentially reflects the mood in poll-bound Varanasi

With Varanasi due to go to the polls on Monday, May 12, the conversation at Pappu ki Adi is obviously about the BJP candidate.

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Image: A man with a cup carrying a portrait of Narendra Modi.
Photographs: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

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In Varanasi, chai pe charcha is just about Modi

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Anita Katyal

Uday Narain Singh, a retired government employee and a regular at Pappu ki Adi, breaks into verse when asked who is leading the race in the Varanasi election.

"Aisi lagi lagan, Kashi ho gayee magan, janta gali gali Modi gun gaane lagi (The people of Varanasi are so smitten with Modi that they cannot stop singing his praises)."

Others seated on the wooden benches in the cramped chai shop quickly join in.

R P Singh, a professor of archaeology at Benares Hindu University, is convinced that Modi will develop Varanasi on the lines of Gujarat.

"The country needs a strong, decisive, leader like him," says Professor Singh.

Is he not an outsider here, backed by the corporate sector, I ask.

Bristling at the question, Professor Singh responds with alacrity. "This is a national election. The Constitution does not ban anybody from contesting elections in any part of the country. Modi will be accepted here for the same reason that Sonia Gandhi was accepted by Rae Bareli and Rahul Gandhi by the people of Amethi," he says.

As for the corporate sector, he says dismissively, it backs all political parties.

"Did you see the crowds the day Modi filed his nomination?" the professor asks. "Adani and Ambani can't buy those crowds."

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Image: Narendra Modi during the road show before filing his nomination in Varanasi.
Photographs: PTI photo

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In Varanasi, chai pe charcha is just about Modi

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Anita Katyal

The more his critics attack Modi, says Professor Singh, the more sympathy he gets.

Retired professor Piyush Mishra maintains that the BJP is the only option before Varanasi's voters.

"If we vote for the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party, they will only end up supporting the Congress. We have no other choice, but to support Modi," explains Professor Mishra, adding that voters want to give Modi a chance, but will not hesitate to reject him if he fails to deliver on his promises.

This group is equally vehement when I ask about Modi's role as Gujarat chief minister during the 2002 communal riots in that state.

"People in Varanasi believe he was not responsible for the riots. Maybe he was unable to control them, but he did not instigate them. Perhaps he made one mistake, but there have been no riots in Gujarat for the last 12 years," says Vijay Dutt Tiwari who runs a coaching centre.

So who is Modi's main challenger in Varanasi?

"Nobody," says the group, "There is no fight here; all the other candidates will lose their deposit."

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Image: BJP supporters during the Modi road show in Varanasi.
Photographs: PTI photo

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In Varanasi, chai pe charcha is just about Modi

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Anita Katyal

Stating that their vote is for Modi and not for the BJP, the chai house crowd say they were crazy about Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal when the duo organised the anti-corruption protests in Delhi in 2011.

"We are really disappointed by Kejriwal. Why did he have to resign? We vote to form a government. Kejriwal is unpredictable. Where is the guarantee he will not run away again if there is a disagreement," asks Mishra.

Does Varanasi view Modi as a Vikash Purush or a Hindutva icon?

"The people of Varanasi are essentially secular and do not see Modi as the saviour of the Hindu faith," says Santosh Upadhaya, who works with the irrigation department and travels 12 kilometres every day to participate in the discussions at Pappu Ki Adi.

The rhythm of this one-sided conversation is disrupted by a different viewpoint and threatens to get acrimonious when Ram Mishra, a Congressman, contradicts the others.

Describing the RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the BJP's ideological mentor, as a fundamentalist organisation, he accuses the others of being "RSS-minded."

"Modi has been propped up by the RSS because it is aware of his fundamentalist views," says Ram Mishra. "It believes Modi will carry forward its Hindutva agenda," adding that the Congress candidate, Ajay Rai, is a better choice as he is a local and goes out of the way to help people in times of trouble.

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Image: A worker prints banners of Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders.
Photographs: Reuters

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Anita Katyal

The genteel veneer disappears, revealing the current face of Varanasi.

"Who was responsible for Godhra? Hindus were killed in that fire. The Muslims were responsible for the arson," alleges an angry Subhash Chaturvedi, a regular at the tea shop while the others nod vigorously in agreement.

Having effectively silenced Ram Mishra for holding an opposing viewpoint, Upadhaya insists that the discussions at Pappu ki Adi are conducted in a congenial atmosphere.

"It may appear that we are quarrelling, but that's not the case. We have heated discussions, but we never get into a fight," he says.

But this assertion -- at least, in the city's current surcharged mood -- is questionable. At Pappu ki Adi these days it seems only one view prevails. Those with different political views prefer not to come in and watch from the sidelines.

Dinesh Yadav and Ramanand Rai are among those outside Pappu ki Adi. They support Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party, they say.

"Kejriwal is an educated and honest man. He is trying to bring in a new brand of politics," they explain, adding that Kejriwal got a lot of sympathy when he was assaulted by BJP supporters in Varanasi.

"This is not the way to treat people," Yadav and Rai maintain.

Saroj Kumar, a retired professor, was once an ardent supporter of the Samajwadi Party, but is now in the AAP camp.

It is left to him to have the last word as he comes up with a ready verse in favour of the AAP: Zulm ki bandigi nahin hogi, karz ki zindagi nahin hogi, haath mein liye jhadoo, mulk mein gandagi nahin hogi (There won't be worship of oppression, there won't be a life of penury. With a broom in the hand, we will cleanse this nation of filth)."


Image: Hindu devotees perform rituals at a ghat on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.
Photographs: Reuters

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