The Indian prime minister wants a second fiveyear term. To win reelection he’ll have to convince the people along the country’s holiest river that their lives have improved
Every Hindu in India learns the story of the goddess Ganga, sent by the creator, Brahma, to release humankind from suffer ing. Her waters are believed to be medicinal. The dying receive a few drops to free their souls from the cycle of death and rebirth.
From its source in the Himalayas to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges River flows for 1,570 miles, through five of India’s most populous states. At any given time, dams along the way generate almost 5 gigawatts of energy, enough to power New Delhi. Almost 100 cities and towns draw its water, returning some 3 billion gallons of industrial waste and effluent to the river each day, the equivalent of 4,400 Olympic-size swimming pools.
When Narendra Modi took office as prime minister in 2014, his first act was to worship at the river’s banks. “Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt,” he declared from the holy city of Varanasi, his electoral seat, as millions watched on television. “And she’s chosen me for the job.”
Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party stormed into office on a platform of jobs, economic development, and an end to corruption; their victory was so decisive, it was termed the “Modi wave.” As Modi entered a second election that began in midApril and continues until midMay, his popularity remained apparently intact. But the lower castes and Muslims who make up a third of the country’s 1.3 billion population are increasingly critical, feeling sidelined by BJP policies. Their disillusionment could deny Modi another majority or even contribute to an upset win by the opposition Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi or a coalition of smaller regional rivals.
The Ganges passes through only a handful of the 29 states that will choose the next prime minister, yet its electoral significance can’t be overstated. Approximately 400 million people live in the Ganges basin, their health and prosperity dependent on the river. A journey along its course showed that many of them, including those who once supported Modi, had doubts about him as the vote approached.
TUMBLING out of Himalayan glaciers, the waters that make up the Ganges are pristine. But by the time they collect into the Bhagirathi River, the Ganges’s turbulent source, and pass through Uttarakhand, their purity is already tainted. Here, earthmovers, road rollers, and scores of workers in yellow helmets send rubble crashing down the mountainside, widening the road so cars can more swiftly reach the state’s four iconic Hindu temples.
The BJP runs Uttarakhand. Voters here went to the polls on April 11, in the first phase of a seven-stage process that ends on May 19. Although final tallies won’t be revealed until May 23, it’s widely assumed the state voted the prime minister’s way.
Whoever wins the general election will have to confront the trade-offs inherent in developing India’s economy. The Modi government initiated the 560-mile Char Dham highway project in the state, eschewing an environmental impact assessment despite concerns raised by India’s National Disaster Management Authority. Flash floods in 2013 killed more than 5,000 people in Uttarakhand, and the agency fears a repeat. Furthermore, some 2,500 families who face displacement from the construction organized a general strike in December, seeking compensation for lost property. Their battle continues in the courts.
“So much should have changed after the floods,” says Kesar Singh Panwar, 53, who lost his home in the 2013 flooding and has challenged the government’s plans in court. He supports Modi but says the prime minister has bad advisers. “We should have ensured policies that protect the Himalayas and the Ganga,” he says. Instead, construction has continued, and “that’s very, very dangerous.”
Tourism, both domestic and international, has become crucial to the state’s economy. For instance, trekking to Gangotri, the glacier 12,769 feet above sea level where the river begins, was for centuries a spiritual quest embarked on by only a zealous few.
Economic liberalization in 1991 brought jobs and industry to the area, along with roads and airports that put the source within reach of ordinary Indians.
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