As one veers off the main Rohaniya crossing to enter rural Varanasi, Parmanandpur is among the first villages on the road. A few AAP volunteers, ubiquitous in their presence across the constituency, have stopped over at a tea shop to distribute pamphlets in favour of Arvind Kejriwal.
BJP's PM candidate Narendra Modi and Apna Dal Chief Anupriya Patel at an election campaign rally in Varanasi. (PTI Photo)
The village is dominated by Kurmis, also called Patels, a backward caste, who are over 2 lakh-strong in the seat and numerically significant in the entire belt. The BJP's decision to tie up with Apna Dal, and even give it two Lok Sabha seats, is driven by its strategy to seal the Kurmi vote. Its leader Anupriya Patel, the Rohaniya MLA, is now the coalition's candidate from Mirzapur. The party is an offshoot of the BSP, set up by her father Sonelal Patel.
But, at the tea shop, the Patels are a divided lot.
Gulab Chand Patel, wearing the AAP cap, claims he was among the founding members of Apna Dal. "But Anupriya went and sold off our vote to the BJP. We voted her out of conviction, for empowerment, but she bartered it away with Modi." The subtext, as some community leaders explain, is that many Apna Dal supporters feel uncomfortable allying with an 'upper caste party', an image Modi is seeking hard to change by re-emphasising his origins.
BJP supporter Rama Shankar, wearing a saffron cap, intervenes sporadically: "It is 50:50 between Modi and Kejriwal now in the community. I will remain with Modi, come what may, but takkar to hai (there is a contest)."
This is enough to rile up Patel, who says the “real” Patels are with AAP, while those with the BJP are the “fake ones”. At this, Subash Chandra Patel reacts sharply: "How can you call us fake? I am with Apna Dal, but will now go with BJP. How can you insult our caste just because of this?"
The sharp division in this Kurmi stronghold best illustrates the churning in the community. In Varanasi, the AAP has been able to make a dent in this Hindu caste, which may upset the BJP's calculations of consolidating upper caste and non-Yadav backward votes.
In neighbouring Chandauli, however, the community is more united in its admiration for Modi.
A few miles before the iconic Mughalsarai railway junction, off the highway, is the Kurmi village of Bakhram. It has traditionally been a BJP area, but the increase in support is discernible.
Almost each one of the dozen-odd individuals HT met here said they would vote Modi, and his presence had got the local candidate in the race. The motivations differ, but Apna Dal is the beneficiary -- rarely the reason -- for the support to the coalition.
A power loom operator explained: "Modi is contesting Varansi. If he wins, he will develop the entire region... Poorvanchal will benefit."
Another old man said he saw Modi on TV telling Pakistan and China that he would look them straight in the eye. "I saw it…. Modi was direct and the two countries were quiet."