Varanasi is the sort of place where a political question can get a philosophical answer. Between the ghats and the chaat, the chants and the music, there is a view and a counter-view in every street corner.
And unlike the rest of India, including state capital Lucknow, Varanasi comes alive at night, when the city's residents, emerge in fresh kurtas and shirts to chatter and discuss the sublime and the ridiculous in every street corner.
Surendra Kumar Mishra runs a shop selling artefacts and bric-a-brac on the steps leading to the Dasashwamedh ghat, the most frequently visited ghat in Kashi. One can't miss him seated to the left of the steps.
He's a happy, amiable soul who ponders why the PM talks of Hindu and Muslim electricity. "Sometimes even he is wrong because we all know this kabristan and bijli talk is false. But Narendra Modi is strong like Indira Gandhi was and all else are weak. If Rahul were Indira then we would have an option..."
Notebandi hit the pilgrims and tourists hard, says Mishra. Some of them sat on the steps of the ghats and wept, others did not have money for food and began to skip meals. Mishra says he distributed Rs 30,000 among tourists who paid him back one by one after they reached home.
"We were local people so we would not starve, so I gave away the cash I had." So did notebandi make him angry? "It made my wife angry whose hidden wealth came out. I say to her, we have to vote for the BJP again and she replies mysteriously that time will tell who I vote for," says Mishra cheerfully.
It is 9 pm and the boatmen at the ghat are lounging against the shoreline of the Ganga. These are the people referred to as "manjhi" in old Hindi film songs, a word that evokes the romance of the river and long gentle rides on open boats. The boatmen are part of the OBC bloc called Nishad that the BJP wooed successfully in 2014 as part of its overall strategy of reaching out to non-Yadav OBCs.
This group has mostly scattered and only a small percentage is left with the BJP.
In Varanasi, it was the attempt to build a jetty from which tourists could watch the famous Ganga aarti that has incensed the boatmen. Notebandi too hurt them for weeks. There is even a Nishad party in the fray but most seemed to be headed for the SP-Congress alliance.
Indeed, if there is a rebirth for the Congress as part of a political alliance led by the SP, it could ironically come from this city that three years ago chanted the slogan of "Har Har Modi". Five assembly seats comprise the Varanasi Lok Sabha of which three are in the city. Even predating Modi's ascent in the city, the BJP won the three seats in the last assembly elections of 2012.
But in Varanasi Cantonment and North, the combined votes of the Congress and the SP were more than that of the BJP (but in a pre-Modi age) while in Varanasi South a respected seven-term BJP MLA has been dropped. The city seats have all been given to the Congress, and local pundits round every street corner say there is a "solid fight" in South and Cantonment.
The alliance is working well in Varanasi but that's before the Modi blitzkrieg from March 4 to 6. The prime minister is giving three days to the city that elected him and there is even a night halt planned.
Bhupendra Yadav, handling the BJP media, says that there will be "such amazing photo opportunities" that the "doubts will fade". Many residents too believe that Modi can pull off some magic.
Cabinet Checks In Meanwhile, the cabinet drops in. One day a sunburnt Rajnath Singh, tired after campaigning and completing over 100 rallies, tells this writer that during his brief stint as UP CM in 2001 he tried to create a separate bloc within reserved quotas for "ati-pichda" of the Scheduled Castes and the OBCs, but Mayawati had removed it.
Two days later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is in Varanasi for a night, just in from London and off to Kathmandu. He too believes that it's the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Chamar Dalits who will carry the BJP in UP. The state, he says, has five voter blocs: upper castes, Yadavs, Muslims, Dalit, non-Yadav OBCs.
Anyone who carries two blocs wins in a triangular contest. As things stand, he believes the BJP could have chunks of three blocs. "The SP and the BSP know who their voter is. The Congress does not know what its base is," he says with reference to the party's response to the new GDP figures.
Modi had carefully chosen Varanasi to make his all-India debut outside of Gujarat. Deepak Malik, a retired professor from the Banaras Hindu University, with an old communist movement association, told this writer in 2014 that the BJP was the most "intelligent at systematically building strategies.
They float an idea, withdraw it, they try another idea, then back it with cadre strength. They take different shapes and avatars and now they come with a well-packaged persona of Modi."
That still applies to what's happening in Uttar Pradesh, and Varanasi is packed with Modi fans. Amitabh Bhattacharya, a veteran journalist, is treated as something of a philosopher and raconteur in Varanasi.
He always has delightful observations about the city that he claims to have spent a lifetime studying. It's a 6,000-year-old city, he says, and its inhabitants like to count stars. "Look how well Modi has kept up the craze for him. Every ball he throws is a bouncer and people just say "Wah, mazaa aa gaya (Great, that was enjoyable)."
Why, you ask, and they will not have a logical answer." Banaras, he says, is a city of habitual users of paan, bhang and charas, and people like a "little intoxication".
Reading the tea leaves is a full-time occupation in the chai shops of the city. Take the atmospherics at the Pappu chai shop, an institution that is a short walk from the Assi ghat, but really the sort of place many would miss. It's a hole in the wall with benches and tea is being made in a big, blackened kettle outside in typical dhaba style. They recognise this writer from earlier visits and refuse to take money for the tea, a very typical generous Banarasi gesture. Have a sweet here, have some chaat there, some thandai in the city centreiK people love to engage with those who are interested in the city.
At Pappu's shop, teachers, students and professors from BHU stop by to have a cup of tea, journalists pop in iX as does bhajan singer Arvind Yogi, who records with T- Series.
He's a BJP bhakt but wishes caste was not a calculation. As the cacophony of voices increases, he sings a bhajan for this writer: "Shiv Shiv bolo Kashi wasi", a beautiful rendition. For a moment the voices at Pappu's shop are silent. Beyond the pleasantries, however, visitors also reveal an enhanced consciousness of their Hindu identity. Varanasi is an interwoven city with large Muslim pockets. There are 3 lakh Muslims in the Lok Sabha seat, scattered in pockets of 50,000 or more in the assembly segments.
The Muslim community in Varanasi is overwhelmingly linked to the business of weaving the famous Banarasi saris. There is a small prosperous merchant class among the Muslim weavers in this town but the majority are poor and illiterate. Many do not send their children to school as they need them on the looms. At the most a few years in a madarsa and then a life spent in the ghettos, in narrow lanes, between garbage dumps and cramped houses where people sleep around their looms.
Madanpura, a locality dominated by the community, also comes alive at night. Preparations are being made for a night nukkad rally of the Congress that will be addressed by Raj Babbar and Pramod Tiwari that turns out to be a lively, packed event.
Mushtaq Ahmad Noori, a small mobile shop owner, says there is almost 24-hour power supply in Varanasi "but how do you separate Muslim power from Hindu power"? Next to Madanpura is Sonarpura and Pandey Haveli, all areas with a mixed population. One can walk to Dasashwamedh ghats from these parts.
It's impossible to physically separate people, even if there are increasing divisions of the mind. Vishvambhar Nath Mishra, mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, is also a quintessential Banarasi. Besides being one of the foremost citizens of the town, he is a religious head and teaches physics at BHU.
The influential Mishra family is the greatest patron of a festival of classical music and he says that since Modiji came to power we are in aalap mode (that is before the raga comes to full flow).
The Mahant family has also been engaged in getting the Ganga cleaned up and is a strong critic of many steps taken by governments, current and past. "We can't turn Ganga Ma into Sabarmati and create a modern riverfront like the Gujarat model," says Mishra. He is an old-world traditionalist who values humanist ideals and is uncomfortable with polarisations.
All the greatest cultural traditions, he says, have emerged on the banks of the Ganga. As we talk, the temple bells ring and the chanting begins. It's another magical Varanasi moment. Later at night a group gathers at Assi ghat: academics, writers, poets, a local psephologist.
Someone talks of the verse of Kabir, another gives his political breakdown, a third regrets the student culture in BHU. It's dark but every now and then light shines on the river.