Varanasi bobs with caps of different hues (Election Special)
Varanasi is awash with caps -- of all political hues and colour.
With political parties contesting the Monday Lok Sabha election giving away their caps to all and sundry, the city has turned into a sea of blood red, white, saffron and tricolour caps made of cheap cloth.
Until the election season began, a variety of headgear and the occasional Muslim skull cap is what one would see in Varanasi. No more so.
While political activists wear their respective caps as a mark of identity, one can see children, roadside vendors, rickshaw pullers, street dwellers and others donning these political colours.
For the man on the street, a party cap may not necessarily betray his political inclination.
"Topi ka kya hai? Aaj BJP, kal AAP, parson Congress ki pehen lenge!" (What is in a cap? Today it is BJP's, tomorrow it will be AAP's, the day after it could be Congress)," said cycle rickshaw puller Ramdin, sporting a cap to beat the scorching heat.
Caps were not a usual fare of Indian election - until this time.
The trend started with the Anna Hazare caps during the anti-corruption campaign that gripped Delhi in 2012.
Last year, it graduated into Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) iconic Gandhi style white colour cap printed with the party name, its symbol broom and a message: "Main hu aam aadmi" (I am a common man).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) quickly responded with its own saffron colour caps with a printed message: "Modi for PM". This too was first seen in Delhi.
In Varanasi, the Samajwadi Party, which rules Uttar Pradesh, has distributed thousands of red caps with the message "Kashi ke Kailash" -- a reference to its candidate Kailash Chaurasia.
Not to be left behind, the Congress came up with tricolour caps with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi's images.
With Varanasi turning into India's most watched Lok Sabha battle, with BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi challenged by AAP's Arvind Kejriwal and Ajay Rai of the Congress, political workers distribute the caps on streets and junctions. In all places, there is a scramble to get them.
Most people here usually wear a head scarf to protect them from the heat. Now it has been replaced with the caps -- as it comes free.
"It's a relief in this weather, it doesn't matter who we vote for. For us, it is protection from the heat," said Nawazuddin, a 40-something man on a bicycle donning a BJP cap.
Under an over-bridge, seeking shelter from the sun is Sukhni, in rags, cradling her child. To protect her daughter from the sun, she has put an AAP cap on the child's head.
"I found it on the roadside, it is very hot... This is the best option."
Children have a gala time collecting caps and flags of all colours. For once, AAP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party and the Congress can be seen together, if only symbolically.
"We got them, now we are playing election-election," Guddu, a 12-year-old, told IANS.
Deenanath Shastri, an 82-year-old seated at a tea shop by the Ganga, used a Hindi idiom -- "Sabko topi pehna rahe hain" -- to say that political parties were taking people for a ride.
(Anjali Ojha can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 11-05-2014)