The city that is no longer Allahabad

The Nehru family’s connect with the city broke with Indira Gandhi’s passing. Their political hold was over when Rajiv Gandhi’s apolitical friend famously entered and exited politics through this city.
The city of Prayagraj
The city of PrayagrajPhoto | EPS

PRAYAGRAJ : The city that has been renamed Prayagraj lives in nostalgia and denial. Denial about its lost significance on the political map of Uttar Pradesh and, by that stretch, of India. As if it’s going through a slow unravelling — a crisis of identity. A century ago, it was a melting pot of nationalistic ferment, the nursery of future prime ministers. Indeed, the first social-political-cultural hub of modern UP. The slide from that was long but irreversible. But it’s evident in the changed crowd at the coffee house, in the inarticulate anger of the youth. The nature of discourse too reflects grey, contemporary realities.

Witness that mutation in the political vocabulary, from overarching tropes to a more caste-based analysis of elections, even as metaphor. Not surprising that someone in this city — reduced to basics amidst brash, hypermodern shopping arcades — explains complexities thus: “Narendra Modi may be from an OBC community, but comes across as a savarna, whereas Mamata, a Banerjee Brahmin, does her politics like a subaltern.” This is by way of explaining why Modi has appeal in a constituency that has 4.5 lakh savarna voters — majority Brahmin at that.

That’s why the contest between two dynasts for the Allahabad seat — Neeraj Tripathi (BJP), son of late Keshari Nath Tripathi, former Governor of West Bengal, and Ujjwal Raman Singh (Congress), son of Kunwar Reoti Raman Singh — could well be settled by the Modi factor.

No irony there. No one raises the issue of dynastic politics in a city whose claim to fame is its association with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Their old homes, Swaraj Bhawan and Anand Bhawan, are now given over to a trust. That legacy has no political pull left, though. “They’ve no connect with Allahabad or its people any more. Even when Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi come here, they drive straight to Anand Bhawan and simply disappear,” says M P Dubey, former professor of Political Science, Allahabad University.

A contrasting anecdote is recounted about Lal Bahadur Shastri and how he used to reach out to people and even opponents at streetcorners.

The Nehru family’s connect with the city broke with Indira Gandhi’s passing. Their political hold was over when Rajiv Gandhi’s apolitical friend famously entered and exited politics through this city.

Lack of enthusiasm, apathy in Prayagraj

Amitabh Bachchan had also mined a legacy of another kind that this city is proud of — that of poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. “That was the last time Allahabad saw a celebrated son of the soil going door to door seeking votes with folded hands,” Dubey adds, somewhat lost in nostalgia.

Someone else is going door to door seeking votes in the traditional way this time — 80+ year old Reoti Raman Singh. Not for himself, but for his son, an INDIA candidate. In hope of garnering his old Samajwadi Party vote, adding it to whatever is left of the even older Congress vote-bank.

Despite the BJP’s track record of winning the Allahabad seat five out of seven times in recent decades, Reoti Raman Singh has reasons to entertain some confidence for his son. He had himself won the seat on a Samajwadi Party ticket against Brahmin candidates, not once but twice. Against no less than BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi in 2004 and Yogesh Shukla in 2009. Even though his own Bhumihar Brahmin community vote comes to only 60,000-odd.

Allahabad returned to the BJP fold in 2014, and again 2019, with the rise of Modi and the Brahmin-Baniya re-consolidation behind the party, a formidable vote bloc of 6.5 lakh. A fraction of the Schedule Caste vote, totalling roughly 3.5 lakh, made it invincible.

However, in this round of saffron self-exploration, it’s not an easy ride. And Neeraj Tripathi has a few drawbacks in what’s already a tough fight. He’s seen as a not-so-accessible political non-entity who’s trying to encash his father’s legacy with the help of his community vote and the hope that the Modi-Yogi magic would carry him through. But there’s no pre-existing wave for Tripathi to surf. And there’s a section within his own party’s local unit—particularly those who wanted to see MLA Nand Gopal Gupta’s wife Abhilasha as candidate—aren’t very enthused with this advocate walking off with an author-backed role in a high-profile urban seat. Then there are those who nurse a grouse that Rita Bahuguna Joshi had go into ‘political vanvas’, even though she herself is to blame.

“While the Congress seems devoid of a leadership in Allahabad (it had to borrow a candidate from SP), the BJP is heavily dependent on Modi’s face and appeal and promise of a better economy,” says Prof Yogeshwar Tripathi, Allahabad University, adding this time that appeal battles widespread concerns about the education sector, unemployment and the rising cost of healthcare.

Lack of enthusiasm and a general apathy is in the air — many potential first-time voters in the city and in the university simply didn’t bother to register themselves. The much-ballyhooed idea that the “economy will grow to top global rankings only around 2047” makes them think they too can take their own time to enroll as voters. Between the near future and the distant one, there’s as much of a blur as there is with the past.

The present, meanwhile, is more film noir minus the aesthetics -- and still a blur. In a city where legends like Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’ once wrote their memorable lines, the talk now revolves around more visceral themes: like the slain Atiq Ahmed and Ashraf, and the retributive justice that came with the demolition of his properties worth crores. As if the city gained on law and order but has lost its moral compass. Allahabad is neither able to fully digest its brush with notoriety nor keep its date with past glory. A vacant economy, empty showrooms, disinterested and unemployed youth, and an unproductive ambience -- nothing recalls the grand, part-modern part-feudal lifestyle of the kind Motilal Nehru had.

It’s no longer even Allahabad. The city lives with a hangover of a just-finished Mahakumbh. And the long exhaustion from having midwifed no less than four prime ministers —Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Indira Gandhi and V P Singh. That’s not counting the short-lived one, Chandra Shekhar, who was a student at the Allahabad University, once a citadel for learning literature and political liturgy.

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