VARANASI: A paan-chewing Sharma Ji drove me from Lucknow to Varanasi. Every patch of good road was praised as the hard work of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). While all the heat, dust and potholes encountered on the way were blamed on the bad governance of the Congress Party, the Yadav dominated Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that have also ruled Uttar Pradesh in the past.

Caught in a traffic jam, Sharma Ji opened his side of the door to spit out a long, thick trail of bloody red paan juice before saying that he does not approve of the hate being spread by the BJP either. He would even like to give his vote this time to another, but to whom?

Sharma Ji feels if Rae Bareilly and Amethi had been model constituencies he would vote for the Congress Party.

Amethi is a Lok Sabha constituency held by the Congress for decades and Rahul Gandhi has represented the seat for the longest period having been re elected in 2014. Before that Amethi was held by Rahul Gandhi’s mother, father and uncle. However most parts of Amethi are hell holes.

As a taxi driver, Sharma Ji continues to criss-cross UP and he is aware of the difficulties that ordinary citizens face without proper homes, water and electricity supply and few job opportunities. He wonders why politicians do nothing for the people when they have all the power and resources to make a difference in providing at least basic amenities to the majority population that remains, poor, illiterate and jobless.

“Only I know the dangerous state of the roads here,” regrets Sharma Ji who is also uncomfortable over the kind of development activities initiated by the BJP. He is unhappy about demolitions taking place around the Kashi Vishwanath Temple complex in Varanasi where the traditional way of life of hundreds of people has been wrenched away from their livelihood.

The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project became operational in March last year. At a cost of Rs 600 crore, the age-old lanes and by lanes in the heart of Varanasi where god and devotee, and home and temple have existed cheek to cheek for centuries have been reduced to ruin. This charming way of life is disturbed after about 45,000 square metres of space around the temple was cleared of ancient homes and temples to make room for broad avenues.

The traditional nexus between the spiritual, and material worlds is demolished and replaced by 50 feet wide roads to ease congestion. As a result some of the loudest critics of development taking place around the temple complex are staunch BJP supporters mostly from the upper caste.

The protests are vociferous against the destruction of century old buildings, and the death overnight of professions like the sale of flowers, scents and sourvenirs. Many have been pushed out of their homes built by forefathers against their will.

Protestors are annoyed that development has murdered the soul of the temple complex that was unique for its narrow lanes around the temple and the sacred area between the Varuna and Assi rivers that flow into the Ganges. To live and to die within three kilometeres of this area was to earn liberation.

“The place is being stripped of its spiritual significance and may not be attractive to tourists either,” fears a Banarsi Babu who is not allowed to sell floral offerings near the temple anymore, a tradition of five generations that has been broken by a bulldozer.

One citizen who has always lived in the vicinity of the Assi Ghat wonders what would be the reaction of the Hindutva Brigade if the SP or the BSP had tried to beautify the Kashi Vishwanath Temple complex area the way the BJP is doing it today?

The Assi Ghat is one of the most important banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. Hundreds of devotees assemble here every morning to pray and on special occasions the area accommodates upto 3000 people every hour. Some 23000 people have assembled here in the past to pray together during festivals like Shivratri.

All those talked to around the Assi Ghat area repeated the same thing that their main problem is not Islam or Muslims but a lack of job opportunities, constant power cuts, horrible condition of roads and corners in the city that have been converted into a stinking garbage dump.

In the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, Muslims form the largest block, with around 3 lakh voters. The number of Yadav voters is 1.5 lakh Yadavs, who traditionally support SP, and 80,00 Dalits, who vote for Mayawati’s BSP. All these votes were once cast religiously for the Congress. Once the people realised that the party does little for the people on the ground, the voting pattern changed against the Congress.

The citizens of UP are annoyed with the Congress Party and do not see it as a viable opposition to the BJP because they are tired of taking orders from Delhi. The people want access to politicians like old time Congressmen including Kamlapathi Tripathi, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and ND Tiwari.

The trend of choosing Delhi based leaders to head the party in UP was started more than two decades ago with Salman Khursheed as Congress president. Throughout his presidency, Khursheed came from Delhi on a flying visit to camp in Lucknow for a few days. he barely spent time meeting the think tank in the state never mind ordinary voters. The result was that his voters turned against Khursheed and he lost his deposit in the 2014 general elections contested by him from Farrukhabad in UP.

There is a similar complaint against Raj Babbar, State party president who will contest the 2019 elections from Moradabad. The Mumbai based Babbar is hardly ever available in the party office in Lucknow and flops out in a private apartment in Lucknow when he visits the city. Gone are the days when Congress leaders held a daily open house in their private homes to meet with ordinary citizens and to address day to day grievances.

Brahmin and Bhumihar voters who dislike the SP and BSP and who mostly support the BJP today, had once supported the Congress Party. Ever since the mishandling of the mandir and the mandal, most upper caste voters have gravitated away from the Congress towards the BJP.

It is the want of vote of upper castes that prevents the Congress from entering into any electoral partnership with the SP and the BSP. The challenge before the present day leadership of the Congress Party in Varanasi is to get the three lakh Muslim voters and four lakh upper caste votes on its side. The Congress has to try very hard to wean away some Yadavs from voting for the SP, and Dalits who vote for Mayawati.

Sharma Ji dropped me at Bunty’s place in Rohaniya on the outskirts of Varanasi and vanished into the heat and dust of Varanasi.

In his mid 30s, Bunty is the eldest child of his father who retired a few years ago from the police force. The father wanted Bunty to join the police, or the army. Bunty did not qualify for either. But after the recent terrorist attack in Phulwama when 44 CRPF jawans lost their live, Bunty said that a surge of patriotism overtook him and he regretted not being in the army.

“I would have liked to kill some of those who murdered our jawans,” said Bunty who is a property dealer. He likes to buy agricultural land from farmers, to plot it and sell it to builders.

However Bunty does not extend ill feelings he has against Pakistan and terrorists to his Muslim friends and neighbours here.

“Muslims here are just like you and me, most of whom do not hate each other. A terrorist can be from any religion. Terrorism is a law and order problem not a religious problem,” says Bunty introducing me to Rinku who drives me around Sarnath, some 10 kilometres north-east of Varanasi.

In Sarnath the Budhha first taught the Dharma on the confluence of the Varuna and the Ganges rivers in a deer park. The place is cleaner and calmer than the colourful clamour on the streets of Varanasi. Rinku is in his mid 20s and works for a private taxi company. He smiles when asked if he is happy.

“Why not? I am happy. No, I don’t agree with the politics of the day as it is encouraging ordinary people to fight with each other and to spread hate against the religion and way of life of neighbours. This is not the politics of development but the politics of religion,” Rinku feels.

On to Prajapti Patel, who drove me back to Lucknow. He was born about two decades ago to a family of Patidars, or Patels in the Shivpur locality of Varanasi. Decades ago his grandfather came as a religious tourist to Varanasi from a village in Gujarat. He felt so at home and peaceful in the city that he got his family to make a home in Varanasi. The Kurmi Patel votes from the backward class total 1.5 lakh in the Lok Sabha constituency of Varansai that has a voter list of about 16,00,000.

Prajapati’s grandfather was a farmer in Gujarat, his father worked on a construction site in Shivpur and he, and his older brother are taxi drivers. Both, he says are happy with the income they earn. He finished his high school and soon after learnt to drive. A father of two, Prajapati is able to follow the American accent of the voice directing him on his GPS app. After all he has studied till class 10, he adds with pride.

Prajapati credits Modi with the internet connection, the highways and websites like Ibibo, the online travel group to which his taxi is registered.

There is a temple in his neighbourhood in Shivpur and infront of the temple is a platform where elders of the neighbourhood socialise. When not working, Prajapati passes by the plaform and listens to his elders also talk politics. He has been told that before Modi, the country was handed over the dead body of Indian soldiers. Now Modi is able to arm twist Pakistan into returning back to India Abhinandan Varthaman, the airforce pilot, alive.

“Because my elders vote for Modi I will too,” he says. Prajapati has little interest in watching television or reading the newspaper. That the water of the Ganges has not been cleaned, Varanasi continues to enjoy bad roads and erratic electricity supply is because five years are not enough for Modi to fix life in the city that has been neglected since the independence of India in 1947, he says.

Prajapati has not heard of Hardik Patel who is agitating for reservation status for the Patel community of Gujarat. He has not heard of Vallabhbhai Patel either. It is Congress leader Vallabhabhai, India’s first deputy prime minister and home minister who first brought the problems of the Patel community to the fore. Then the Congress government in Gujarat in the 1980s increased the OBC quota in jobs from 10 percent to 28 percent to the wrath of Patels who did not like the idea of competing with members of other backward classes. They felt their community members will be deprived of job opportunities in higher education and government jobs. Annoyed with the Congress for doing this to them, the Patels gradually began to support the BJP.

Over the years, the Congress Party has lost millions of supporters in the country due to an absence of foresight, and lack of earnest grassroot politics.

Who is on board therefore with the Congress Party on the Ganga Yatra, and boat pe charcha hosted by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, general secretary responsible for revamping the Congress in parts of eastern UP?