Until just a few weeks ago, Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, was packed with its usual crowd of pilgrims, funeral-goers, and backpackers. These days, though, the streets are a sea of saffron, and the sounds of politics and prayer seem strangely in tune. This town, historically a center of Hindu teaching and pilgrimage, is also the base for Narendra Modi’s parliamentary run. As 819 million Indians cast their ballots over the past few months, all eyes were on the city, with its Modi posters plastered on storefronts and new highways, on temple walls and ancient alleys.
It is in Varanasi that I meet Ram Paswan. He runs a shop selling materials for cremating dead bodies. (Varanasi is also where Hindus go to die, so his is a lucrative business.) Paswan, who has long been a supporter of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is thrilled that Modi, the future prime minister, ran from his city. His neighbor, Alam Khan, who runs a barbershop, is not. Khan belongs to the 19 percent of Varanasi’s population that is Muslim and which sees Modi, who has been charged with complicity in the 2002 riots and pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat, as dangerous.
Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in Varanasi for centuries. But Modi’s campaign there has changed things, creating a rift between Paswan and Khan -- and between many others. “My religion comes before my friendship,” Alam tells me. “We don’t have too many options in this election, but Modi is not the right choice for our people.” Alam has traditionally supported the secular Congress Party, but, when we first spoke, he was unsure whom he would vote for. He eventually pushed the button next to “NOTA,” or no vote.
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