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I stood at the frontline of India's £11billion election – this is how democracy is done


There is an overwhelming sense that this a New India on the rise

There is an overwhelming sense that this a New India on the rise (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

“Chalo Benares” from a searingly hot 39C Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh province, the oldest living city in the world. 

India’s incredible 44-day billion-ballot, dubbed the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, has seen an eye-watering £11.4billion spent on campaigning.  

It is the fourth voting phase out of seven and citizens across the nation are being urged to “do their democratic duty” by both celebrities and ordinary people. 

We made our way to Varanasi within hours of touching down in Delhi to witness a rally-come-roadshow where thousands lined the streets to cheer their local MP — who just happens to be the Prime Minister of the world’s biggest democracy.

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Standing under the Guru Ravidass Gate on the parade trail

Standing under the Guru Ravidass Gate on the parade trail (Image: ADNY COMMINS)

Narendra Modi, 73, leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

Narendra Modi, 73, leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

Narendra Modi, 73, leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was warming up his constituents ahead of formally submitting his nomination papers on Tuesday. 

To reach the event, we jetted via a direct internal flight on Vistara Airways to Varanasi — known locally as “Banares”, and also “Kashi” – its Sanskrit name meaning “City of Light”.

As we landed at our destination the flight attendant even urged passengers to get out and vote over the tannoy.

Posters of a famous IPL cricketer and Bollywood actor adorned the airport arrivals hall producing a tangible sense that democracy was in the air. 

We witnessed a true festival of democracy in Varanasi

We witnessed a true festival of democracy in Varanasi (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

A poster of a famous IPL cricketer encouraging Indians to vote in this year's election

A poster of a famous IPL cricketer encouraging Indians to vote in this year’s election (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

Once the sick man of India, Varanasi has witnessed a total transformation in just the last decade.

And you can feel it on the streets — there is an overwhelming sense that this a New India on the rise.

Roads that would be the envy of Britain (not a single pothole in sight!) have sprung up all over the region. 

And it is something its inhabitants are grateful for. 

Speaking to the Daily Express from a family-run photo studio, akin to a UK Snappy Snaps, Anita Aggrawal, 30, a paediatric dietitian, said she was “very happy” with Modi as a native Benarsi because she believes he has done a huge amount for the local area.

She listed his achievements such as increasing tourism in the area by restoring it to its former glory, rolling out infrastructure projects and increasing safety for women on the streets. 

Anita Aggrawal i

Anita Aggrawal in her family-run photo studio, with father Ajun, son Ashwik and mother Anugagrawan (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

Thousands lined the streets to cheer their local MP — who just happens to be the Prime Minister

Thousands lined the streets to cheer their local MP — who just happens to be the Prime Minister (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

Ms Aggrawal, who was holding her three-year-son Ashwik in her arms, said she wanted Modi to return as PM because of the many projects he has already committed to in the pipeline concerning development of roads and hospitals. 

The food counsellor also pointed to a restoration of the region’s shared cultural values as another reason for her support. 

She said: “We feel very proud that he has helped this region rediscover its religious heritage.”

It was a message we heard time and again, with a law student at Benares Hindu University Ashwini Tiwari, 25, saying Modi was “helping to reclaim our civilisation and rediscover our lost heritage”. 

Ms Aggrawal’s mother Anugagrawan Aggrawal, 62, said Modi had empowered women and “turned them into fighter pilots”.

She also pointed to a recently established helpline for women which has meant they feel safe to venture out alone at night.

She said: “Modi used to be stopped now all the world leaders are coming to visit him!” 

And she nodded with a laugh when asked if India was on the up. 

Varanasi has witnessed a total transformation in just the last decade

Varanasi has witnessed a total transformation in just the last decade (Image: ANDY COMMINS)

Ms Aggrawal’s views were also echoed by hairdresser Ashish Sharma, 21 who said he was “very excited” to be here to support Modi.

He also cited roads, infrastructure, economic development and “helping poor people” as key reasons that he was backing Modi in the election.

Shouts of “This time more than 400!” rang through the 4km-long procession route – a reference to the number of seats the ruling BJP is hoping to win in this epic contest.

Everyone we spoke to on the ground at the rally and away from the action on the river bank seemed to have a genuine reason to want to see Modi return for a third term in office. 

The turnaround from the event was also impressive, with the pedestrianised area of the rally back to its usual hustle and bustle within hours. 

Streets were virtually fully clean again and free enterprise was flowing with floating diya flowers being sold by children and elderly people alike for the iconic fire veneration ceremony, a nightly dedication to river goddess Ganga on the banks of the Ganges.

As we drove away from the campaign event, signs and billboards were being hastily packed away and some locals were even having a go standing on Modi’s platform. 

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