With Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi, the 2014 general election will be remembered for, among other things, the big fight on a grand stage.
After much deliberation, the BJP decided to field Modi from the holy town. It’s a convenient fit for both. The party has steered clear of overt references to Hindutva so far, but Modi seeking a mandate from the cradle of Hindu religious and cultural ethos is undeniably symbolic.
There’s also a political reason for Modi’s candidature from Varanasi. The party would be hoping that the Modi-wave created here will permeate to eastern Uttar Pradesh and southern Bihar, the Poorvanchal region, where it finds itself weaker than in other regions of UP, the state with 80 seats and a fragmented polity that the BJP must win.
In contesting against Modi, Kejriwal has signalled that he is willing to take his pugnacious battle with Modi a step further. During his Gujarat tour in which he claimed to have exposed Modi’s development model and in calling out the mainstream media as being pro-Modi, Kejriwal has posed a direct challenge to the PM-aspirant.
The BJP may dismiss it as a no-contest but Kejriwal has demonstrated willingness to take Modi head on, something that the Congress has been diffident about.
In seeking to represent Varanasi, BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi’s constituency, in the face of dissent from within, Modi sent out another message: the old guard is for the moment consigned to the fringes.
Varanasi is a centre of Hindu pilgrimage but it’s also a microcosm of syncretic and pluralist traditions and cultures, a seat of learning, Hindustani classical music and art. It’s also the town in which the river Ganga, moving south, briefly flows northwards to create an arc – a natural geological phenomenon which mystical poets and kathakars presented as a figurative movement of life.
If Modi were to allow himself to be influenced by Varanasi’s traditions and lessons, he might represent the town better.