For Modi, India's marathon election ends where it all began

Old temples are seen on the banks of River Ganges on January 29, 2018, in Varanasi, India.

Varanasi, India (CNN)The River Ganges, or the Ganga to Indians, is one of Hinduism's most sacred waterways. Considered the personification of goddess Ganga, it is worshiped by millions of the faithful.

It flows through Varanasi, one of Hinduism's holiest sites and among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Millions of pilgrims flock to its temples and ghats -- or riverbank -- every year.
It is also politically significant. When Narendra Modi, then a state-level leader for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided to seek national office in 2014, he chose the ancient city as his constituency.
Cows bathe in the River Ganges in Varanasi.
"I feel Ma Ganga (Mother Ganges) has called me," Modi said in 2014. "I feel like a child who has returned to his mother's lap."
    Varanasi was also the stage for the finale of India's elections -- the largest the world has ever seen -- as polling concluded there on Sunday, four days before results are announced.
    In a speech on Tuesday, Modi reiterated his 2014 message to the people of Varanasi ahead of voting.
    "It is often said that whosoever come to Kashi (the ancient name for Varanasi) even once, becomes part of the city. In the last five years, I have experienced this every passing moment. In molding me and giving a direction to my political and spiritual being, Kashi has a huge influence on me," he said, seeking re-election from the city.
    Varanasi is famous for its large number of holy men -- or Sadhus -- who come to the city to live a spiritual life.
    With exit polls commissioned by private Indian media outlets suggesting Modi could be on course for a second term, CNN visits his constituency to examine how life has changed since he came to power -- and whether he was able to keep his previous election promises.

    Cleaning the Ganga

    Cleaning up the world's fifth-most polluted river was never going to be easy. The river, which originates from a glacier in the Himalayas, is a lifeline for 400 million people -- but its waters have become dangerously toxic in places with billions of liters of pollutants pumped into it every day.
    Yet Modi made it a key promise to clean up the entire river by 2020 under his Clean Ganges program. He pledged 200 billion rupees ($2.8 billion) starting from April 2015 to get it done.
    In many ways, Varanasi is ground zero for that project.
    Om Prakash, 43, has been rowing boats for tourists along the river for more than 10 years. When he first started, his family would drink, cook and bathe in it. "But today, the water is not even worthy of touching," he said.
    Om Prakash says it's important to keep the River Ganges clean.
    Many Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganga's waters will absolve them of sins and achieve "moksha," or salvation, from the cycle of life and death.
    But chemical waste from industrial factories, run-off from oil refineries, dye from tanneries and human waste is poured into the river, mere meters from where people bathe or even drink.
    Prakash says he doesn't know what the money Modi pledged is being spent on as the river is still dirty.
    "We need to make sure sewage water doesn't get into the Ganges," he said. "There has been a little improvement, but if you want to improve the Ganga you have to stop the sewage water."
    Prakash rows up and down the ghats every day in the hot sun to support his wife and three daughters. He says about 80% of the passengers he sees throw their garbage into the river.
    "If they are on my boat I don't let them throw it. I ask them to keep it with you and when we reach the ghats put it in the dustbins," he said.
    Manikarnika Ghat, one of the most sacred places in Varanasi, is where the faithful come to cremate their dead on funeral pyres, which burn 24 hours a day.
    Environmentalists say the government's money isn't translating to work on the ground.
    "The government has done what the previous governments did in the past -- make sewage treatment plants -- which then serve very cosmetic purpose of cleaning and are of little effect," said Mallika Bhanot, who works with Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO working for protection of the River Ganges.
    The government-run National Mission for Clean Ganga and Central Water board did not reply to requests for comment.
    In November 2018, the United Nations said the river remained "woefully polluted" and efforts to clean it were "severely lacking."
    Despite this, Prakash said he would still vote for the Prime Minister -- highlighting how Modi's appeal remains strong in the Hindu heartland.

    Smart cities

    One of Modi's 100 smart cities projects, Varanasi is on a five-year development plan intended to grow the economy, clean the ghats and improve traffic conditions. But its ancient way of life is at odds with the pace and nature of modernization.
    It's a crowded and bustling hub of markets selling the famed Banarasi silk saris and scarves, and religious and spiritual trinkets. Sadhus, or holy men, dreadlocked and draped in saffron, their foreheads smeared in white ash, wander up and down the congested roads or sit solitary in the shade of the ghats.
    A woman walks through a demolition site, where buildings have been cleared to make way for the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor in Varanasi.
    Redevelopment has started, with the building of a corridor to the the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the holiest sites for Hinduism in India and dedicated to the Lord Shiva. Some 300 houses and buildings have been knocked down to widen the famed narrow lanes -- called galis -- and buildings leading to the temple.
    It's a hugely risky project for Modi, both politically and socially. The temple is important for liberals and conservatives, BJP supporters and non-BJP supporters. And construction risks pulling down ancient sites around it.
    The residents of Kashi -- the old town -- say the demolitions have destroyed their culture. Many have been living there for up to five generations. Their houses are up to 400 years old, built side by side and on top of one another over the years.