The broad, tiled steps that descend from the lanes of Varanasi down into the Ganges are crowded with half-naked pilgrims. The air is tinged with the smoke of burning bodies. Temple bells clang incessantly. In the murky water of the revered river where water buffalo soak, Hindus come to wash away their sins. Other faithful cremate their loved ones on the shore in the open air, donate to the many saffron-robed sadhu holy men and visit some of the most sacred temples in India.
This is Hinduism's holiest city. It is also the symbolically chosen constituency of Narendra Modi, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party's candidate for prime minister in India's national parliamentary elections. Mr. Modi, who filed nomination papers in one of his two ridings Wednesday, is running as a Mr. Fix-it for what many think is a broken, stagnant India – and almost all polls show him winning.
Even though Varanasi won't vote until May 12 – at the tail-end of India's marathon five-week voting process – Mr. Modi's reputation has preceded him here to the city's steps, or ghats, where teenagers play a makeshift game of cricket with a damp tennis ball on the trash-strewn mud.
"I'm going to vote for Modi," said one of the players, Kishu Sharkar, an 18-year-old boy whose father carves idols for the city's many temples. "If we make him prime minister, he will bring us development."
Mr. Modi's success is in part the result of a sprawling ground campaign and sophisticated brand-building, but the remarkable momentum of his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, also shows the breadth of dissatisfaction with India's economy and the depth of yearning for something better.
The son of a tea-seller from a rural town in the state of Gujarat, Mr. Modi won three straight majorities as chief minister – the rough equivalent of a premier – of the state of Gujarat and is known as a no-nonsense man with a strong pro-business slant. Between 2004 and 2012, his state's GDP grew at an average rate of 10.1 per cent, and he promises that he can bring all of India the same economic development.
But his Gujarat record – he is accused of doing nothing to stop a massacre of Muslims in the state 12 years ago – is also his chief vulnerability in this diverse country. Mr. Modi has never apologized for the failure of the police to act in anti-Muslim riots in his state in 2002 that left around 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead. And for all the predictions of a big electoral win, the party's religious orientation and his history remain divisive.
Earlier this week, for instance, the BJP released its election manifesto and promised to build a temple on the site of a mosque torn down by Hindu zealots more than 20 years ago. The manifesto is a grab bag of promises to appeal to the Hindu nationalist base as well as a broader public; it also vows to protect and promote cows, which many Hindus consider sacred.
Mr. Modi, for his part, has stuck to the party's core message for this election – that he is the can-do candidate for economic renewal and is the only one to manage the nation out of the economic slump left by the Indian National Congress, the venerable secular party that has ruled in a coalition for a decade. During that time, the economy soared after economic reforms were implemented, and then plummeted. By 2012, GDP growth hit 3.2 per cent and has only recently climbed to around 4 or 5 per cent. Grinding poverty persists in states such as Uttar Pradesh where Varanasi is located and where only one in three young graduates are employed.
"People see the last 10 years as a wasted opportunity – it's literally a feeling of despair about our government," says Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader. "Management of the economy by the [Congress-led coalition] is playing a major role. The investment climate has deteriorated. This is impacting almost every part of the country."
Mr. Modi's critics cast him as an autocrat who is misleading the country about his economic credentials and is a dictatorial leader who can't be trusted to unite India's incredibly diverse population. They suggest he simply happened to preside over strong growth in a state that was already prosperous and lured corporations to invest without providing sustainable jobs for the poor.
But he appears to be riding a wave of disenchantment with the parties that have long ruled India. A survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center in December and January found broad dissatisfaction with the state of the country, with those surveyed ranking jobs and the economy, along with corruption, as major reasons for their feelings. The Modi campaign is trying to capitalize on that sentiment.
Shashi Tharoor, a former diplomat and Congress MP from the southern state of Kerala, said the polls overstate Mr. Modi's popularity. But he acknowledged that Indians, particularly young Indians, are frustrated.
"It's part of the revolution of rising expectations in our economy," Mr. Tharoor said. "The rise of opportunities has not been commensurate with the rise of expectations. And people are [then] more susceptible to the rhetorical powers of someone who says, 'I can fix it.'"
On the ghat in Varanasi, there is a buoyant feeling that Mr. Modi's momentum can't be stopped and will ultimately transform India for the better. "There's a Modi wave," said Prem Shanker Singh, 55, who came to the waterside to cremate his father. "The issue is development. We want development."
With a report from Reuters