Putting speculations to rest, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Saturday announced its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi would contest the Varanasi seat in Uttar Pradesh after sitting parliamentarian Murli Manohar Joshi gave in to the pressure from top leadership.
The BJP's poll committee finalised its fourth list of 98 candidates from 12 states, including UP, at a marathon meeting of top leaders in New Delhi. BJP national general secretary Ananth Kumar said at a press conference held late on Saturday night that the party would publish another list next Wednesday.
The BJP decided to field senior leader and Rajya Sabha member Arun Jaitley from Amritsar. Actor Kirron Kher will contest the Chandigarh seat against Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP's) Gul Panag and Congress' Pawan Bansal. In Bihar, Shatrughan Sinha will contest the Patna Sahib seat.
Alongside Modi, another top contender in UP, which has 80 Lok Sabha seats, is party president Rajnath Singh, who will contest from Lucknow. Joshi will fight from the Kanpur seat.
Modi's decision to enter the fray from the holy city, as demanded by BJP strategists, underscored anxiety on the part of the party brass to maximise the saffron party's tally from UP and Bihar — two key states accounting for 120 Lok Sabha seats that could help the BJP reach the magic figure of 272 in the House to form the next government.
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With Modi finally getting the green light to contest the Varanasi seat, all eyes are now on AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, who has launched a scathing attack on the Gujarat chief minister in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The rookie party has hinted at a direct fight between Modi and Kejriwal in the 2014 polls.
"We will have to review our decision that no MLA can contest Lok Sabha elections," AAP spokesperson Nagendar Sharma said, confirming there was every possibility of Kejriwal taking on Modi.
Meanwhile, celebrations started in Varanasi much before the Gujarat chief minister's name was announced for the seat. Modi's supporters burst firecrackers and danced to drumbeats in the holy city.
Modi's nomination for the seat, however, was a tough challenge for the saffron party, which hopes to put up a spectacular show in UP under his leadership.
BJP workers supporters celebrate after Narendra Modi in Varanasi. (PTI photo)
Modi's rallies in UP ahead of the polls were a huge success, giving the BJP a shot in the arm and making stronger the 'Modi from Varanasi chorus'. Besides, exit polls have also predicted a huge gain for the BJP in UP, where Muslims make up 20% of the population and have 17% of the vote share.
Read: Why BJP fielded Narendra Modi from Varanasi
Read: The BJP ticket shower: Jaitley goes to Amritsar, Rajnath to Lucknow
But media reports suggest that with Joshi initially putting his foot down after being asked to make way for Modi, the BJP's unity in politically vibrant UP, which has the highest Lok Sabha seats in the country, has suffered a blow.
Besides, the BJP brass had to burn the midnight oil to pacify dissidents in UP including Kalraj Mishra, who wanted to contest from Kanpur.
Mishra will now fight from the Deoria seat near Gorakhpur. Varun Gandhi will contest the Sultanpur seat, while his mother Maneka Gandhi will fight from Pilibhit.
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Agricultural scientist Sanjiv Baliyan was named from Muzaffarnagar. Riot accused Hakum Singh was fielded from Kairana.
The party cleared Rajnath Singh's name from Lucknow after acceding to his "request" to fight from a constituency once represented by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The BJP chief had sought to move from Ghaziabad, the seat he represented in the 15th Lok Sabha, in view of the challenge from the AAP.
Jaitley, who has not fought a direct election so far, was the surprise of the pack and got the Amritsar ticket after former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu stepped aside.
"Arun Jaitley is like my guru. I welcome him to Amritsar. I have taken a pledge that I will contest from Amritsar or nowhere. I will keep my promise. I haven't asked for anything in return," Sidhu said.
The Akali Dal had reportedly expressed reservations on a ticket for Sidhu and suggested Jaitley's name to avoid a rebellion.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh's son Abhishek Singh got a ticket from Rajnandgaon. Former Madhya Pradesh CM Uma Bharti was fielded from Jhansi.
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Former Uttarakhand chief ministers Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (Haridwar), BC Khanduri (Pauri-Garhwal) and Bhagat Singh Koshiyari (Nainital) also got party tickets.
Ex-Congress leader Rao Indrajeet Singh and former Bahujan Samaj Party general secretary SP Singh Baghel were fielded from Gurgaon and Firozabad within weeks of their entry in the BJP.
Former Haryana BJP chief Krishnapal Gujjar and doctor-politician Mahesh Sharma are BJP candidates in Faridabad and Gautam Buddha Nagar, respectively.
* Sitting MP- Murli Manohar Joshi
* 2009: Victory margin 17,211
* Defeated – Mukhtar Ansari (BSP)
* Caste combination: Patel, Bhumihar, Brahmin
* Muslims: about 18%
* 2004: Congress at BJP
* 1999: BJP beat Congress