Varanasi, India, at dawn.

Varanasi, India, at dawn.


Megan Williams

As dawn breaks over the Ganges River, pilgrims splash in the sacred water.

Above the bathers, the steps of Varanasi are already alive with life. Children sell garlands of bright marigolds, a tea seller lights her stove and ferrymen stand in small clusters, awaiting the first customers of the day. For millennia, Varanasi has been a revered holy city, a sacred site for Hindus.

But as India heads to the polls, the city on the Ganges has taken on political meaning. Indians are going to the polls for the next five weeks. It is the world’s biggest election ever, with some 800 million Indians casting their ballots.

And the man many expect to become the next leader of India, Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi of the People’s Party, has chosen Varanasi as his home base.

He’s not from here, but because of the city’s deep connection to Hindu spirituality, it’s a way to stress his commitment to a Hindu-based vision of India's national identity.

In his campaign speeches, Modi describes an India without poverty and corruption, where no one goes hungry. There's plumbing and electricity for everyone, and all children can get an education.

Sounds great. Yet Modi is a deeply divisive politician.

A right-leaning Hindu nationalist from the state of Gujarat, he's accused of failing to stop anti-Muslim riots there in 2002 that left more than 1,000 dead. Hundreds of women and girls were raped. But as the head of the Gurjarati government, he's widely credited by big business as someone who brought wealth and stability to his state.

And he has immense appeal among young Hindus hungry for a slice of economic prosperity. Boat rower Maranam Deepo, 34, said 99 percent of his friends will be voting for Modi.

“I support Modi and I would like to see the changes he brought in his home city of Gujarat here in Varanasi: Less corruption, putting the police in check and cleaner streets,” Deepo said.

But in the bustling lanes of Varanasi’s Muslim district, support for Modi evaporates. Nabab Dullah, 64, sits in the small shop where he sells embroidered carpets and fabrics.

He's part of India's 18 percent Muslim population that has long felt politically ignored, or even attacked.

“I haven't voted in 20 years,” Dullah said. “I used to vote for the Congress Party when they stood for something. But none of the parties offer anything worthwhile now.

Asked if he's worried about Modi's Hindu-nationalism, Dullah laughed.

“I've been whacked over the head so many times already, abused and beaten up, I'm immune to it. There's nothing Modi can do to me that I haven't already experienced,” he said.

Dullah said he doesn’t know a single Muslim who’ll vote for Modi. But it's not just Muslims who are shying away.

Sapna Shukfla is a Hindu bank worker visiting Varanasi from the nearby city of Luknow. She says Modi’s traditional view of women and his authoritarian solutions to sexual violence leave her uneasy. She’d rather his People’s Party advocate for more rights and freedom for women.

“Because of their fundamentalist policies, I don't know whether that will be good for women. I'm really scared,” she said. “This is a big issue in Indian society today. How Indian society treats its women, needs to improve.”

But Indians are longing for a change after a decade under the corruption-plagued Congress Party, now headed by Rahul Gandhi.

And, as a result, many seem willing to overlook concerns about Modi’s possible Hindu-fundamentalism, in hopes that he’ll be the one to fulfill the promise of widespread prosperity, which has so far eluded India.

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