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India’s leader rallies his base with Hindu mega projects

A 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque, the white structure sandwiched between Hindu tem ples, is seen in the background March 19, 2019, as Hindu devotees walk at the site of a proposed grand promenade connecting the sacred Ganges River with a centuries-old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, in Varanasi, India. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

A 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque, the white structure sandwiched between Hindu tem ples, is seen in the background March 19, 2019, as Hindu devotees walk at the site of a proposed grand promenade connecting the sacred Ganges River with a centuries-old temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, in Varanasi, India. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

VARANASI, India (AP) — In the Indian city Hindus consider the center of the world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has commissioned a grand promenade connecting the sacred Ganges River with the centuries-old Vishwanath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction.

It’s a project dripping with equal parts symbolism — Modi, the devout Hindu, restoring the ancient connection between two religious icons — and political calculation. In his five years as prime minister, Modi has pushed to promote this secular nation of 1.3 billion people and nine major religions — including about 170 million Muslims — as a distinctly Hindu state.

The $115 million promenade is just one of a number of Modi’s religious glamour projects, aimed squarely at pleasing his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s base ahead of a general election that starts on Thursday. While India is majority Hindu, critics say such projects undermine India’s multiculturalism, potentially stoke religious tension, and come at the expense of far more pressing infrastructure needs.

The project is also part of a larger Hindu nationalist effort to erase evidence of India’s diverse past.

Modi, 68, has long understood how politics and religion intertwine in Varanasi. Despite hailing from the western state of Gujarat, he has chosen to run for a second time as the parliamentary candidate for Varanasi.

There are those who say the money could have been better spent in one of the world’s oldest living cities, where men relieve themselves in public on trash-strewn streets and sewage flows into the Ganges near religious bathers, funeral pyres and crowds of devotees who gather by its waters for nightly prayers.

And some Varanasi Muslims fear the project could embolden Hindu hard-liners who have demanded for decades that the 17th century Gyanvapi mosque — which they claim was built over an earlier Vishwanath temple demolished in the Mughal era — should itself be torn down.

The demolition of around 300 commercial and residential buildings to make way for the promenade has left a gaping hole in Varanasi’s urban core, a congested maze of zig-zagging brick lanes full of religious shrines.

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