Old temples are seen on the banks of River Ganges on January 29, 2018, in Varanasi, India.
Varanasi, India CNN  — 

The River Ganges, or the Ganga to Indians, is one of Hinduism’s most sacred waterways. Considered the personification of goddess Ganga, it is worshiped by millions of the faithful.

It flows through Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites and among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Millions of pilgrims flock to its temples and ghats – or riverbank – every year.

It is also politically significant. When Narendra Modi, then a state-level leader for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided to seek national office in 2014, he chose the ancient city as his constituency.

Cows bathe in the River Ganges in Varanasi.

“I feel Ma Ganga (Mother Ganges) has called me,” Modi said in 2014. “I feel like a child who has returned to his mother’s lap.”

Varanasi was also the stage for the finale of India’s elections – the largest the world has ever seen – as polling concluded there on Sunday, four days before results are announced.

In a speech on Tuesday, Modi reiterated his 2014 message to the people of Varanasi ahead of voting.

“It is often said that whosoever come to Kashi (the ancient name for Varanasi) even once, becomes part of the city. In the last five years, I have experienced this every passing moment. In molding me and giving a direction to my political and spiritual being, Kashi has a huge influence on me,” he said, seeking re-election from the city.

Varanasi is famous for its large number of holy men -- or Sadhus -- who come to the city to live a spiritual life.

With exit polls commissioned by private Indian media outlets suggesting Modi could be on course for a second term, CNN visits his constituency to examine how life has changed since he came to power – and whether he was able to keep his previous election promises.

Cleaning the Ganga

Cleaning up the world’s fifth-most polluted river was never going to be easy. The river, which originates from a glacier in the Himalayas, is a lifeline for 400 million people – but its waters have become dangerously toxic in places with billions of liters of pollutants pumped into it every day.

Yet Modi made it a key promise to clean up the entire river by 2020 under his Clean Ganges program. He pledged 200 billion rupees ($2.8 billion) starting from April 2015 to get it done.

In many ways, Varanasi is ground zero for that project.

Om Prakash, 43, has been rowing boats for tourists along the river for more than 10 years. When he first started, his family would drink, cook and bathe in it. “But today, the water is not even worthy of touching,” he said.

Om Prakash says it's important to keep the River Ganges clean.

Many Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganga’s waters will absolve them of sins and achieve “moksha,” or salvation, from the cycle of life and death.

But chemical waste from industrial factories, run-off from oil refineries, dye from tanneries and human waste is poured into the river, mere meters from where people bathe or even drink.

Prakash says he doesn’t know what the money Modi pledged is being spent on as the river is still dirty.

“We need to make sure sewage water doesn’t get into the Ganges,” he said. “There has been a little improvement, but if you want to improve the Ganga you have to stop the sewage water.”

Prakash rows up and down the ghats every day in the hot sun to support his wife and three daughters. He says about 80% of the passengers he sees throw their garbage into the river.

“If they are on my boat I don’t let them throw it. I ask them to keep it with you and when we reach the ghats put it in the dustbins,” he said.

Manikarnika Ghat, one of the most sacred places in Varanasi, is where the faithful come to cremate their dead on funeral pyres, which burn 24 hours a day.

Environmentalists say the government’s money isn’t translating to work on the ground.

“The government has done what the previous governments did in the past – make sewage treatment plants – which then serve very cosmetic purpose of cleaning and are of little effect,” said Mallika Bhanot, who works with Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO working for protection of the River Ganges.

The government-run National Mission for Clean Ganga and Central Water board did not reply to requests for comment.

In November 2018, the United Nations said the river remained “woefully polluted” and efforts to clean it were “severely lacking.”

Despite this, Prakash said he would still vote for the Prime Minister – highlighting how Modi’s appeal remains strong in the Hindu heartland.

Smart cities

One of Modi’s 100 smart cities projects, Varanasi is on a five-year development plan intended to grow the economy, clean the ghats and improve traffic conditions. But its ancient way of life is at odds with the pace and nature of modernization.

It’s a crowded and bustling hub of markets selling the famed Banarasi silk saris and scarves, and religious and spiritual trinkets. Sadhus, or holy men, dreadlocked and draped in saffron, their foreheads smeared in white ash, wander up and down the congested roads or sit solitary in the shade of the ghats.

A woman walks through a demolition site, where buildings have been cleared to make way for the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor in Varanasi.

Redevelopment has started, with the building of a corridor to the the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the holiest sites for Hinduism in India and dedicated to the Lord Shiva. Some 300 houses and buildings have been knocked down to widen the famed narrow lanes – called galis – and buildings leading to the temple.

It’s a hugely risky project for Modi, both politically and socially. The temple is important for liberals and conservatives, BJP supporters and non-BJP supporters. And construction risks pulling down ancient sites around it.

The residents of Kashi – the old town – say the demolitions have destroyed their culture. Many have been living there for up to five generations. Their houses are up to 400 years old, built side by side and on top of one another over the years.

Krishna Pande says her house is 200 years old and five generations of her family have lived there.

Krishna Pande, 70, has been living in the tiny narrow lanes ever since she was married 50 years ago. But those lanes are gone, the houses demolished. All around her are piles of rubble and dust. Her house is one of a handful still standing.

“We are crying tears of blood,” she said. “They’ve split the families. They’ve divided us. This is what they’ve done – everyone has parted ways,” she said of the government’s redevelopment work.

Pande, who has cataracts in one eye, worries what will happen if they are forced to sell. She said her neighbors have been given compensation for their homes but not for their businesses, which they’ll lose if they move. She said Modi has not done any favors for the people living here.

Residents are concerned the demolition is destroying ancient artifacts and the culture of the old town.

Sudhanshu Tiwari, 37, is a librarian in the 92-year-old library standing on the edge of the demolition work. “Slow and steady the demolition is moving towards my house,” he said. “I feel sad, and we can’t find a place like this anywhere else. This is heaven.”

But Tiwari said the demolitions have not changed his impression of the Prime Minister. “The rule of nature is change,” he said. Praising developments including new roads and better street lighting, he added: “You need time for any sort of work. No one can do anything in five years.”


In 2014 Modi swept to power, in part, on a promise of economic renewal.

India has the world’s fastest-growing major economy – overtaking China in 2015 – and the country’s gross domestic product is forecast to be nearly $1 trillion bigger this year than in 2014.

But there has been a deceleration in recent years, with the biggest hit to growth resulting from some of Modi’s signature policies.

In November 2016, he abruptly banned the two biggest banknotes in circulation, making 86% of the country’s cash worthless.

While the aim was to crack down on black money and tax evasion – which many experts said was misguided, given that most untaxed wealth is not believed to be stored in cash – the move wreaked havoc in the cash-dependent economy and brought several sectors to a halt.

In Varanasi, the silk weavers – who are predominantly Muslim – bore the brunt of demonetization. Sixty-nine-year-old Hanif Baba, whose family are all silk weavers, said the looms were shut down as the owners employed them to stand in queues all day to exchange old bank notes for new ones.

“I stood in a queue at 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. and by end they said there is no money,” said his daughter, 30-year-old Sarvari Begum.

Hanif Babu said the silk weavers of Varanasi were hit hard by demonetization.

Though highly skilled at creating beautiful pure silk saris with intricate designs, Baba said he was paid just 40 rupees (50 cents) per cloth or 100 rupees ($1.50) for a full sari. The traders own the looms and all the materials.

“People who profited (from demonetization) were the administrators and bank managers,” he said. “They said if you give us one lakh rupees (100,000 rupees, $1,400) we will convert it and give you back 70,000 rupees – 30% was a commission for them.”

As well as financial loss, he said demonetization caused tension within families as the women would often hide money to save for a daughter’s marriage or other family needs.

The Varanasi weaver community is considered to produce some of the finest silks in all of India.

“Demonetization came really heavy on them because they were the ones who were storing all the money,” he said. “A lot of men divorced their wives because they were like why were you hiding all this money when we needed it? Children suffered, families were divided.”

A massive overhaul of India’s tax system a few months later hit the economy even harder, as businesses still reeling from the cash ban struggled to cope with the changeover.

Although expected to help India’s economy become more efficient in the longer term, the way the changes have been implemented has hurt many small businesses.

Hanif Babu and some of the intricate silk finery he and his family make.

“If you really look at what this government has done, it has systematically ticked a lot of boxes,” Pronab Sen, India director at the International Growth Centre and the country’s former chief statistician, told CNN in April. “But the one big error was [the cash ban.] The consequences of that one act, I think, more than outweighs the good things that have been done.”

Hindu nationalism

Modi pledged development for all during his 2014 campaign, promising jobs and innovation.

But over the past five years, Indian liberals have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist background on the country’s secular fabric. The BJP has its roots in India’s Hindu right-wing movement, many followers of which see India as a Hindu nation – a stance that worries liberals and minorities, including the more than 170 million Indian Muslims.

Concerns have been sharpened following a spate of mob attacks on minorities, including Muslims and lower-caste Hindus known as Dalits.

Attacks under the name of “cow protection” have risen since Modi came to power, according to a Human Rights Watch report. The group said that between May 2015 and December 2018, 44 people suspected of killing or transporting cows for slaughter, or even just eating beef, were killed in vigilante attacks. That number included 36 Muslims.

Human Rights Watch said many of the murders went unpunished in part due to delayed police investigations and “rhetoric” from ruling party politicians which may have incited mob violence.

Baba said he’s scared for his children and grandchildren. But he said people of all religions and customs had made the culture of Varanasi what it is and it will hold fast no matter who is trying to divide them.

“Workers here are interlinked like chains. We are being intelligent and not being swept in by their false propaganda,” he said.

Ganesh Shankar Upadhyay, head priest of the Sri Kashi Karavat Mandir temple in Varanasi.

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by those on the other end of the scale. High Hindu priests at the Sri Kashi Karavat Mandir temple in the old lanes say that Modi is dividing the people and using Hinduism for political gain.

“Varansi is a 1,000-year-old trade center,” said Ganesh Shankar Upadhyay, head of the temple. “Hindus, Muslims, it has always been this way.”

“There are people who work for religion and those who earn from religion,” he added, saying those in power were only “earning from religion.”

The priest called ultra right-wing Hindu groups, such as the hardline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – which Modi was formerly member of – “a hammer on our religion. A downfall.”

“Hinduism is the fragrance and the moment we put a sword in its hands, how will it progress when the religion is about fragrance?” said Upadhyay.

A flag of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hangs over Varanasi's crowded old lanes.

In 2014, Modi’s BJP won a record-breaking 282 seats in the national Parliament – the first time a single party earned a clear majority in 30 years.

Modi still enjoys massive support around the country, including his home constituency of Varanasi, where the lotus symbol of the BJP is plastered around the city, on billboards, flags flying from buildings and even roadside vendors’ umbrellas.

This time round, the elections are essentially a referendum on his policies over the past five years.

Though some exit polls put Modi on course for a second term, pollsters have a patchy history predicting precise seat tallies. And with Varanasi ending India’s marathon election, all eyes are now on May 23, when results will be announced.

CNN’s Rishi Iyengar contributed.