Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers for the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency on Thursday, setting the stage for the most high-profile battle of the ongoing Indian elections.
A day earlier, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal had filed his nomination from the seat after a roadshow. Ajay Rai of the Congress is the third big candidate from the seat.
The Varanasi battle became the most watched electoral contest after Kejriwal announced his candidature against Modi, saying there was a need to defeat both Modi, and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi.
Before filing his nomination, Modi paid tribute to Varanasi's "Ganga Yamuna tehzeeb" and promised to improve the lot of the city's Muslim weavers.
The Gujarat chief minister said he had helped his state’s Muslim kite makers improve their lot and would do the same for the Muslim weavers of Varanasi by using modern technology, branding, designing and marketing.
Hailing the city's secular ethos, Modi said he wanted to see Varanasi become an internationally known spiritual capital.
"Nobody told me to come here, nobody sent me (to Varanasi)," he said, shortly before filing his nomination. "Mother Ganga has invited me. May she bless me. May God give me strength to serve (Varanasi's) Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb."
He also pledged to clean up the Ganges, as he had done with the Sabarmati river in Gujarat.
"I thank the people of Varanasi for giving me so much love," he said, at the end of a roadshow that drew tens of thousands in the city.
On Wednesday, Kejriwal had launched a blistering attack on Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi while describing himself as an "aam aadmi".
Before filing his nomination, Kejriwal had declared, "We are very confident of winning in Varanasi."
He also asked aloud from where Modi and Gandhi were getting money for their campaigns across the country.
Kejriwal also slammed the BJP-controlled local Varanasi administration for keeping the Ganga river dirty. When he passed a mosque, many trooped out to cheer him. He waved to them.
With 1.6 million voters, Varanasi goes to the polls on May 12 — on the last day of the multi-phase balloting acoss the country that began April 7. The results will be known May 16.
With inputs from IANS