Hotel Surya in Varanasi was the hub of the BJP on Wednesday. From Arun Jaitley to Amit Shah, from state unit president Laxmikant Bajpai to national spokespersons, it was from here that they were tracking polling in the eighth phase, making plans for Narendra Modi’s rallies on Thursday, and engaging with the media. But while the hotel was abuzz with energy and confidence, right outside, an encounter illustrated the challenges for the BJP.
When asked who he would vote for, Binod Ruben Baksh, an auto driver, told HT, “Arvind Kejriwal. We need someone in Delhi who will challenge Modi and give him sleepless nights. He will be PM. But we are voting not for the government, but for the opposition,” he said. But would Modi not be able to do more as PM for Varanasi? “No. He is a big man, with big money. He won’t return here,” was the response.
Just then, an old man, wearing the BJP symbol on his kurta, stopped by. Originally from Varanasi, Vishwambar Srivastava had served as LK Advani’s personal assistant for decades. Srivastav told Baksh and other auto and cab drivers, “You must vote for a strong, stable government. Only Modi can provide that. Do you want a ragtag coalition of the Third Front? Kejriwal ran away from Delhi. Why are you supporting him?”
Cab driver Alam argued back: “Banaras has been under BJP control. The MP, Murli Manohar Joshi, was from here. You have the mayor, local representatives. But there has been no work. They don’t even use the full funds meant for the seat. Why should I vote for the BJP again?” Srivastav changed track, and admitted little work was done, but said Modi is different from Joshi.
When Baksh and Alam continued complaining about the city’s lack of facilities, Srivastav said, “Look. Modi will win here, whatever Kejriwal does. So why are you wasting a vote?”
Baksh now repeated his argument about having a strong opposition. Srivastav was rattled, and admitted. “This is true. If there isn’t a strong opposition and Modi wins by a big majority, he will do whatever he wishes. I was a Congressi till 1962, but after the China war, I realised that the country needed an opposition.” But Srivastav told his interlocutors that Kejriwal could not be that opposition, as he would neither win this seats nor have enough MPs to back him in Parliament.
The incident, right outside the BJP war-room, illustrates the battle in Varanasi and challenges for the BJP. It has had to distance itself from its outgoing MP’s record. In the face of a strong Kejriwal campaign, it has had to project the inevitability of Modi’s victory as a reason why people should vote for him. It also symbolises the distance the party is yet to bridge with the minorities — Alam is a Muslim and Baksh a Christian. But most significantly, it reveals that the battle in Varanasi is not only about electing an MP. For many, it is about electing the opposition.