FOR Shrikanth Porwal, “Work is worship”. A busy 58-year-old sweetseller from the historic city of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh (or UP), India, he brushes off my question about temple-going. Instead, he shows me his notebook and a handwritten verse:
“God lives in character,
not in pictures
Make your inner temple.”
He’s a Hindu from the Baniya caste. It’s an upper caste: wealthy traders, influential but relatively small – there’s an estimated 28 million of them across the Republic. They are also among the ruling BJP’s core supporters.
Still, Shrikanth is a lovely man. He is not tall but barrel-chested and flashes a beatific smile as he hands out boxes of koya, peda and barfi to the shoppers at his stall.
His shop, little more than a hole-in-the-wall is in the Chowk, the city’s traditional market, a maze of roads and lanes that grows ever more hectic as the sun sets.
There are motorbikes, hand-drawn carts, trucks, rickshaws, cars and buses, not to mention tens of thousands of pedestrians and a handful of stray cows.
The noise is almost unbearable. A constant barrage of horns and klaxons: “I drive therefore I beep.” It’s as if every square inch is occupied or fought over. This is the heart of the Ganges plain: vast, lush and densely-populated.
If UP were a country, it would be more populous than Brazil or the combination of Germany, France and Britain. Allahabad, however, isn’t the state capital, that’s Lucknow to the north.
Situated in UP’s south-east, it’s very much the state’s intellectual hub. There’s the prestigious, 132-year-old Allahabad University and the largest high court complex in Asia – the main reason why the celebrated, lawyerly Nehru-Gandhi clan was to make the city its home.
But it’s Allahabad’s geographical location – wedged between the Yamuna and the Ganges – that invests it with enormous spiritual weight. Indeed, every 12 years in the agricultural low season, some 120 million adherents gather for the Kumbh Mela, bathing at the “Triveni Sangam”, the confluence of these two rivers and a third – the mystical Sarasvati – to wash away their sins.
Shrikanth has been a regular visitor, though strictly speaking the six-yearly iteration known as the Ardha Kumbh (or half Kumbh) is a more modest affair. But with an election in the offing, this year’s Ardha Kumbh (currently ongoing until March) has been upgraded. Grander in scale than any previous gathering and lavished with some US$589mil (RM2.4bil) in government funds, the event has become slick, people-friendly and corporatised – in short, a superb vote-getting exercise and classic Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“It is the pride of Allahabad,” the sweetseller asserts, before conceding that it may have been politicised this year, though adding: “It’s much better organised than before. This shows that the government knows how to prioritise – which is why all of us will vote for BJP.”
Walking around the Kumbh the next morning, it’s hard not to agree with Shrikanth. In a country notorious for congestion, the attention to detail – the public toilets, the discreet crowd control, the food courts and stadium-scale lighting, not to mention the freshly-laid straw on the sandy riverbanks to make walking that much easier – was almost disconcerting.
But with UP sending 80 elected representatives to the Lok Sabha (or lower house of Parliament), both Allahabad and the Kumbh Mela have taken on a heightened importance this year, all the more so since Modi’s constituency, in the holy city of Varanasi, is just three hours to the east.
Indeed, no party can realistically expect to rule India without support from the UP. Back in 2014, the BJP, benefiting from a divided opposition, won a staggering 71 seats in the Hindi-speaking state.
However, 2019, notwithstanding the Kumbh’s successes, will be different. The BJP will face stiff competition from the state’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Samajwadi Party (SP) alliance – a coalition by former Chief Minister Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. In the last election, the SP won five seats and the BSP none despite both parties having dominated the state for the past 15 years or so.
The two parties appeal to different groups, with the BSP drawing on the Dalit community and the SP, the middle-castes and Muslims. They should, if successful, form a nearly-invincible voting bloc.
Of course, no one should rule out the BJP and their impressive infrastructure roll-out.
Allahabad has been transformed. The power supply is reliable and flyovers have proliferated, including one that I took leading to the Chowk (smack in city centre), which was completed in under eight months – a rare feat in this country.
Perhaps this is why some Allahabadis don’t believe that anyone else can win. For someone like Shrikanth, there is no alternative to the BJP: “Rahul Gandhi is too inexperienced, and the others merely look out for their own communities rather than for the good of all Indians,” he says as he arranges laddoos in a box for a customer.
This is despite renewed vigour in the Congress campaign, especially after the entry of Priyanka Gandhi – who some believe resembles her grandmother Indira – into active politics.
Yet, Shrikanth acknowledges that business in the Chowk hasn’t quite recovered since the implementation of GST and demonetisation. Moreover, the Kumbh itself has not brought much business to the city of 1.1 million, with most visitors being redirected to the great, tented encampment beyond Allahabad’s boundaries.
So will the government’s investment in a grand Hindu celebration in a constitutionally secular country pay off? The appeal to middle-class, Baniya voters such as Shrikanth is undeniable. Will the other castes follow suit? It will be interesting to watch how Allahabad – a city that has produced six prime ministers – and the state will vote.