In Varanasi on Wednesday people flocked to see and hear Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The cloak of fear, quipped an old resident of Kashi, seemed to have been lifted and people looked more relaxed.
“There was colour on their ashen faces,” he waxed while explaining that residents of Kashi had been overwhelmed during the past few years by the heavy hand of the state, which demolished houses, temples and heritage buildings around the Vishwanath Temple. The sight of policemen and sound of their boots had reduced the residents to sullen silence. Wednesday was different.
The crowd had not been mobilized. People came out on their own and jostled to get a glimpse of Priyanka Gandhi, shake her hands and have themselves photographed with her. Her informality and ability to wade into the crowd broke barriers.
Wednesday was the last day of her three-day boat ride that started at Prayagraj (Allahabad) and which culminated at Kashi. Mingling freely with people residing in riverine villages and towns, unobstructed by gun-toting black cat commandos, Priyanka patiently listened to the problems of fisherfolks, boatmen, weavers of Banarasi silk brocade and carpets besides temporary teachers.
Priyanka spent seven hours in Varanasi. She listened to the woes of hundreds of boatmen whose livelihood has been badly hit by the introduction of motor launches and cruise ship in Ganga as part of Modi’s ambitious plan to transform world’s oldest living pilgrimage city of the Hindus into a metropolis fashioned after Japan’s Kyoto.
The boatmen were on a strike for two weeks in January in protest.
This was Priyanka’s second visit to Varanasi after assuming office of Congress party’s general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh and first after the announcement of election dates for the coming Lok Sabha polls. Varanasi is Modi’s parliamentary constituency.
During her three day ‘Ganga Yatra’ by boat, Priyanka met with people of different strata in villages and towns along the river. Like her grandmother, the late Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, she preferred to mingle with poor women, held small children in her arms, struck conversation with the ordinary people, inquiring about their welfare and problems.
She was enthusiastically welcomed on the Assi and Dasashwamedh Ghats in Varanasi by people who turned out in large numbers to have a glimpse of the granddaughter of Mrs Indira Gandhi.
In ‘Pucca Mahal’ (old city) which has seen large-scale demolition of old multi-storeyed buildings, some more than 200 years old, to make way for Ganga Pathway and Kashi Vishwanath corridor as envisioned by Modi, residents showered rose petals and marigold flowers from rooftops of buildings which have still not been razed.
Slogans of “Ye hawanahi, aandhi hai, ye Priyanka Gandhi hai” interspersed with “Har Har Mahadev” greeted her as she walked through the narrow lanes.
She prayed for over five minutes before the Shiv Linga in the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Priyanka met Congress workers and citizens in a hall for about an hour before concluding her Ganga Yatra.