Going by the sentiments in Varanasi’s 1.6-million electorate, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi looks set for easy sailing in the Lok Sabha elections.
With the temple town’s civic system in tatters —garbage dumps everywhere, long power cuts, traffic chaos and high pollution in the iconic River Ganga — the blame largely lies with the BJP, which has won five of the six elections in Varanasi since 1991. Many Varanasi residents, however, believe Modi is the solution to all their problems with his development agenda and PM nominee status.
This brings into question Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to move away from the familiarity of his Delhi stronghold to contest from UP. While corruption was a major issue in the fairly developed Delhi, development talk seems to be cutting more ice in Varanasi, which has two rural assembly segments out of a total of five.
“If the AAP had not taken on Modi in Varanasi and (Congress leader) Rahul Gandhi in Amethi, the party would have been completely ignored in this election and we would have lost the momentum,” a senior AAP functionary said.
AAP strategists will comb through computers, go through survey papers compiled as a result of a door-to-door campaign in Varanasi — there are 3.14 lakh houses — to convince you that Kejriwal poses a tough challenge for Modi — and you cannot dismiss them altogether.
Sheila Dikshit may have looked a weaker opponent when compared to Modi, but the three-time Delhi chief minister was quite formidable, having ruled the national capital for 15 years before Kejriwal dethroned her last winter.
Party insiders, however, say a win-by-losing strategy could be the rookie party’s Plan B. “Even if we don't win but do well, we can cash in on it when going to people during the Delhi and Haryana assembly polls slated for later this year. It's a long battle after all," a party insider said.
The AAP hopes the decision of don-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari not to fight from Varanasi will benefit Kejriwal. There are three lakh Muslim votes in the city. In the absence of a strong Muslim candidate, these votes are up for grabs by others. The Congress’ candidate Ajay Rai, however, will also cut into their votes. A three-time legislator from the powerful Bhumihar caste, he will also gain from the support of around 1.5 lakh Bhumihar voters in Varanasi.
Kejriwal is out to woo voters from other communities too. He has already met Balmiki Samaj leaders and visited Dalit areas in and around the city. Taking a dip in the Ganga and staying at the house of a person related to the chief priest of the iconic Sankat Mochan Mandir have also propelled his prospects among the Hindu electors.
The AAP, however, maintains there is no caste angle in their poll strategy. “Don't narrow your vision. It's much beyond caste and religion. If Kejriwal has chosen to take on Modi, it's not because he was banking on these considerations, but because we at AAP sensed people's mood; they want honest politics, a political alternative. Brace for surprises,” said a close aide of Kejriwal.
Full coverage:My India My Vote