A wave of saffron surged this week across the city of Varanasi as Narendra Modi came to town. From 6pm until after 9pm on Thursday night, moving through the city was nearly impossible and Varanasi’s usually clogged arteries came to a standstill. I had just pushed my way through the streets and was standing near the entrance to Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main set of stone steps leading to the Ganges, when about a dozen people quickly and quietly moved past me. At their center was Arvind Kejriwal. I had been expecting to appear, but the lack of pomp was disarming.
The path to the river was crowded with mostly Indians, but numerous tourists were also present, all preparing for the daily aarti ceremony that is performed here—a tribute of fire to Lord Shiva and the Ganges, among other divine forces. The crowd around Kejriwal grew as people realized who was amongst them and they raced to snap selfies or shake Kejriwal’s hand. A group of girls holding posters caused Kejriwal to stop and greet them. There was no sense that this was a show because there was no real media presence, just people. There were no armed guards shielding him from the crowd either (a Bollywood actor in Nepal had more state security). Only once the ceremony got started did a dozen or so state police forces show up.
I managed to get a seat for my first aarti ceremony right at Kejriwal’s feet and split my attention between the two ceremonies unfolding on either side of me. In front of everyone was a bright, colorful display of fire and smoke—the sound of the prayer filled my ears. The fire’s kinetic energy was center stage—its orange glow cast itself on all present and everyone raised their hands and chanted along when beckoned. Yet many became intrigued by who was behind me, something new, where a quiet man sat with his wife and prayed in silence.
Immediately around Kejriwal, and consequently around me, were members of his entourage—young people inspired by the popular revolt against corruption that began in 2011 in Delhi. At risk of disrupting the aarti, people all around pressed in to get photos of Kejriwal, though most were generally respectful of Kejriwal’s desire to be a spectator himself.
There was no VIP section, there were no staged interactions with commoners for the cameras, and he did not wave once. In fact, there were very few cameras besides those on the phones of onlookers. While this was was not a political rally, the difference in style with the Modi event I attended in Gujarat was stark. There, the closest Modi came to the crowd was while sitting on the other side of his front seat window as he drove away. Modi’s presence commanded the audience to be silent.
Here, Kejriwal was another devotee. After the aarti, though, the AAP did hold a rally outside the ghat where many who had sat around me took the stage to speak. The stage was small and those on it sat on the floor, not in chairs. At one point, they handed the microphone to an old man in the crowd to speak. Instead of a 100-foot berth enforced by armed guards, I leaned on the stage taking photos and chatting with those on stage.
This morning, the front page of the Hindustan Times was dominated by the story of Modi’s “street protest,” where his security-flanked motorcade crawled through the city for over two hours. The paper also carried a report on Kejriwal’s aarti—on page 3.