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From Baying For Boycott to Praying For a Win: How Mood Around India-Pak Match Reversed in Varanasi

As the decades-old antipathy between the warring nations runs its ultimate test at the rain-splattered World Cup on Sunday, patriotic loyalties on both sides are at its peak.

Zoya Mateen | News18.com

Updated:June 16, 2019, 1:24 PM IST
From Baying For Boycott to Praying For a Win: How Mood Around India-Pak Match Reversed in Varanasi
Special 'Aarti' performed in Varanasi ahead of India Vs Pakistan match in Old Trafford

Varanasi: The air in Varanasi is largely celebratory. As one walks through the borough of bottle-neck alleys, an overwhelming presence of saffron can be felt.

BJP flags poke out of ancient cracks in crumbling buildings and flutter, almost decisively. This feeling becomes stronger as one approaches the ghats, where faith and politics sit comfortably next to each other, like two old friends.

A flock of men cower outside an over-crowded tea-stall. A cricket match was on. India was playing South Africa. Apart from an over-excited fist hurled in the air occasionally, the mood was largely peaceful. It was as if the fans had met a tacit understanding with the cricket gods: There was no way India wasn’t winning this.

Ye toh chalta rehta hai,” said the tea vendor as he poured the piping hot beverage into flimsy plastic cups. “The real deal is the Pakistan match. India is going to repeat its ‘sixer’ performance of the election once again against them,” he said.

As the decades-old antipathy between the warring nations runs its ultimate test at the rain-splattered World Cup on Sunday, patriotic loyalties on both sides are at its peak.

However, in India, the ante this time has been upped in a different context. After the recently concluded general elections, the intense sporting derby for many has turned into a larger celebration of one man: Narendra Modi.

“After what Modi did for us, not just the people of Banaras, but of the entire country – by answering back to Pakistan – a victory on the cricket field is the best gift we could give him in return,” said Kishan Chand, who toils as a boatman at the banks of the historic Dashashwamedh Ghat.

“There is no question of losing this match. This is the divine plan,” he said as he pinched forward his T-shirt which boasted a picture of Narendra Modi’s face painted in saffron.

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That the BJP’s resounding election victory was built on the shoulder of its ability to capture sentiments against Pakistan was no secret.

As the hyper-intensity of nationalism was at its peak post the Pulwama attack, cricket became one of the tools to rebuke and isolate Pakistan.

The fixture was put under doubt as voices calling for a boycott of the match grew shriller close to the elections, seeking to draw maximum mileage from the issue.

With the elections over, those voices have faded away, supplanted by cheers. The dark clouds of border tensions have largely been replaced by the cloud over the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester.

Notwithstanding even that, the course of celebration has already been decided. On the morning of the match, the iconic Ganga Arti will be held at the washed over ghats and prayers for India’s victory made.

There was also news of arrangements being made for local commentaries atop moving autorickshaws for those who can’t watch. “The electricity is erratic here, we will have to keep our phones charged,” said a toy shop owner who runs a small establishment near the Vishwanath temple.

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The bells of the many temples will toll in prayer on the morning of the match. The ecstatic rumble of people cheering the team will be met with the shrill noise of conch shells booming in temple hallways. Shops in the ancient side of town, known as Chowk, are prepared to keep shut for the day. Jubiliant celebrations are to follow once India wins, which the people have decided, is the only possible outcome of the match.

Relations between India and Pakistan often take a tempestuous colour during cricket matches, with passionate fans often venting zeal in all shades bitter.

But this time, it feels as if there is something more. “The rivalry has always been beyond the bat and ball. This time it is about India’s permanent win against Pakistan,” said Chand’s friend. He, too, sported a NaMo t-shirt. “Modiji defated them once in Balakot, now we will do the same on ground,” he added.

There is one man though, who sat quietly through all this. “Best not to use the game for politics like our leaders are. India should win, but because they are the best players in the tournament. Nothing else,” he said.

With all scope for diplomacy between India and Pakistan dismantled for now, millions of eyeballs will be watching the most politically charged match of the tournament on Sunday afternoon.

It is expected to be the most-watched World Cup match with millions tuning in around the world. The last time India and Pakistan met on the cricket field was also in England, during the 2017 Champions Trophy final, which was watched by an estimated 1 billion people.

“Nobody wants war, but nobody wants to lose either,” Chand said. He was readying himself for his evening duties at the river. “The Gods will bless us,” he added at the end. As he wanders off for his usual business, the holy water of the Ganga washes over the partly submerged staircase of the ghats. The sound of prayers mingle with the evening air and religion and politics perhaps, once again share a laugh.

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