Some fiercely-contested elections are epoch-making; they define the start of a new era. These are the ones that prove a politician's mettle, and showcase the work that he wants to be known for. It is precisely for these reasons that the 2014 parliamentary elections in Varanasi and Amethi in eastern Uttar Pradesh are so important for the Aam Admi Party (AAP), the new-party-on-the-block. Ever since it decided to contest the Lok Sabha polls, the party made it clear that it would challenge the biggest national leaders of both the Congress and the BJP. This is in keeping with AAP's David-versus-Goliath style of politics which helped it form the government in Delhi. It is also part of the party's strategy to be seen as acting on its rhetoric that the 'BJP and the Congress are two sides of the same coin'. If the AAP is able to put up a tough fight or emerges as a first runner-up in these seats, it will bolster the party's chances in the Delhi and Haryana assembly polls later this year. And if it wins either of the two VIP seats in UP, the party will enjoy success at a whole new level.
This is the backdrop against which AAP has fielded two of its biggest leaders, Arvind Kejriwal and Kumar Vishwas, against BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, respectively. In the process, it has entered the electoral race in Uttar Pradesh, a state where it has no political presence. Moreover, in terms of size of the electorate, demography, issues, and political history, Varanasi and Amethi are starkly different from the national capital where the party came to power within a year of its launch.
Can AAP make the cut in these two seats? A journey through the constituencies reveals that the electorate does not see the AAP as a potential winner, but the party is now definitely a part of the political discourse.
"Do not make me wear the cap. I cannot support you openly. I will earn enemies," Kapil Seth (42), a street vendor in rural Varanasi's Rohaniya area tells an AAP worker as he asks him to vote for his party in the election scheduled on May 12. "I am going to vote for you. Take my word for it," he adds.
In Varanasi's Lallapura area, Idris Ansari, president of an association of weavers, is impressed. "Kejriwal looks promising. He talks straight from the heart. He ended the VIP culture in Delhi. We cannot rule him out as an option," he says. But people like Seth and Ansari are in a minority in Varanasi, which seems to have decided in favour of Modi — something even the AAP concedes. "You may be a supporter of Modiji," is the first sentence on the Hindi pamphlet that the party is distributing in Varanasi. In a sense, the document assumes Varanasi's voters are Modi loyalists. The ground reality is no different.
The Varanasi Lok Sabha seat comprises five assembly seats, three of which are urban. "Suppose Arvind Kejriwal wins the election. What can he do as an MP other than spending the annual fund? We will benefit 10 times more if Varanasi becomes the constituency of Modi. As prime minister, even if he visits here once in two years, all the pending work will be done," says Ratan Shrivastava (32), who runs a dairy farm on the outskirts of the city.
Chetan Jaiswal (29), who runs a mobile accessories shop in Chowk market, prefers Modi over Kejriwal as he is impressed with the former's development model and cannot wait to see it being implemented in his home town. "If voted to power, Modi will replicate the same across India," says Jaiswal who was impressed with what he saw during the two business trips that he made to Gujarat in the last five years.
Things don't look very promising for AAP in Amethi either. For any political party, making a dent here involves brainwashing 14 lakh voters, a majority of whom swears by the Gandhi family. Since 1981, no Gandhi family member has lost an election in Amethi. Such is the clout of the Congress here that opponents ridicule it and predict its victory in the same breath. "I am a hard core sanghi. I vote for the BJP. But in Amethi, it does not matter who is in the fray. Only the Congress wins here," says Radheshyam Mourya (37), who runs a grocery shop near the Kasimpur train halt. About the AAP's prospects, he says: "I have seen their candidate toiling. He should put this hard work in some other constituency as Amethi and Rahul Gandhi are synonymous."
Unlike Varanasi, voters in Amethi don't give you reasons for their political preferences. They share an emotional bond with the Congress party. Ironically, many choose the party despite being dissatisfied with the condition of their constituency. "I realise that Amethi has not witnessed the kind of development which happened in Lucknow," says Govind Prakash Shukla, a farmer in the Gauriganj area, pointing to the potholed road running past his farm. "But if the people of Amethi have decided to become martyrs for the Congress, I would rather join them than change my voting preference," he says.
The Delhi curse
While the AAP's success in Delhi went some way towards propelling the party to the forefront of the national imagination, its dissolution of the government after ruling for just 49 days has disillusioned people in Amethi and Varanasi. Many, who were upbeat about it forming the government on an anti-corruption plank, are now not so certain about supporting the party.
"How will AAP govern in UP when it did not continue in Delhi for two months?" asks Prakash Yadav (48), an Amethi native who works as a gardener at a South Delhi farmhouse. "I am not saying it is corrupt; but it has no model to showcase. In Delhi, it got a golden opportunity to deliver, but it moved on to run for parliament," says Yadav.
"The Congress did not withdraw support. So the AAP cannot play victim. The Jan Lokpal bill was one of the AAP's many promises. What happened to the others?" says Pradeep Shukla (39), a cab driver in Varanasi.
Amit Singh, an MCA student at Banaras Hindu University, is harsher: "They have not done net practice. We cannot send them to play at an international match," he says. Dismissing the party as a non- starter, Singh shares a joke doing the round among his friends: "However good a broom is, it does not last longer than six months."
Still, AAP's representatives are giving it their best shot. As part of the party's campaign strategy, Kumar Vishwas, who is projecting himself as the common man taking on the dynast Rahul Gandhi, shifted base to the district, with his family, three months ago. "I live in Amethi. Where does Rahul Gandhi live?" he asks people during a road show in the Salon area. Vishwas believes his physical presence in the area is crucial to galvanise votes. On a 40-day yatra, he claims to have covered all but 200 of the 1,253 villages in the district, canvassing on foot. "I met hundreds of people who said they were interacting with a parliamentary candidate for the first time," he says.
Even as Gandhi's name reigns supreme in the constituency, Pankaj Shukla (47), part of the five-member core team in charge of AAP's campaign here, is confident that his party will win. "The anti-Congress vote is accumulating here in our favour. District level members of various political parties have extended their support," says Shukla, who quit his job as group programming head at a regional news channel in Mumbai to work with Vishwas, who is a close friend.
The AAP's poll plank in Amethi, is the lack of basic amenities, education and health. Vishwas' big promise is to introduce a train service to Allahabad, 100 kilometres to the south of Amethi.
In Varanasi, Kejriwal hasn't had the advantage of time. He had less than two months to raise his campaign, starting March 25, when he declared his candidature in Varanasi's Benia Bagh. Kejriwal has deployed Gopal Prasad (29), a postgraduate in technology, who handled his campaign for the New Delhi assembly seat, to supervise. Puncturing the Gujarat development model is AAP's top priority, says Prasad, adding, "Members of the civil society in Gujarat will come to Varanasi to deflate Modi's claims." The pollution of the Ganga and power cuts are also high on AAP's list.
Qaumi Ekta Dal leader Mukhtar Ansari's decision not to enter the election fray is expected to work in favour of the AAP as it may consolidate the votes of the Muslim community which forms 30 per cent of the nearly 17 lakh voters here. In 2009, BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi won by a margin of about 17000 votes with Ansari, fighting on a BSP ticket, being the runner up. AAP also hopes to galvanise Dalit votes, which account for about 15 per cent of the vote share here.
Perhaps it's the realisation that the party has everything to gain that keeps its members upbeat. As elections in other seats across the country wrap up, party volunteers from those constituencies will begin to arrive in Varanasi and Amethi to step up the campaign in both these key seats. After April 14, Kejriwal himself will be dividing his time between Varanasi and Amethi. David is clearly preparing to take on the two Goliaths on different fronts. In the end, even if the AAP doesn't bring either crashing down, the party will still have raised its own profile.