The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Wednesday opened its war room in Varanasi's Mahmoorganj area, opening up a new front in the high-profile battle between party supremo Arvind Kejriwal and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
As part of its first activity, the AAP cited its own survey covering 80,000 households out of the total 3.14 lakh in Varanasi and said Kejriwal was trailing behind Modi by 50,000 votes.
Kejriwal's campaign manager Gopal Mohan said, "It's not a small achievement. When we started our campaign, we were trailing by 2 lakh votes. We will wipe out this deficit in 10 days."
But reaching out to people is proving to be a tough task. AAP's target is at each household at least three times. By now, the first round (3.14 lakh) should have been complete.
There are five – three urban and two rural -- assembly segments in Varanasi parliamentary constituency. Five persons have been given the job of winning it for Kejriwal. They are Manish Sisodia, Dileep Pandey, Durgesh Pathak, Kapil Mishra and Gulab Singh.
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"During his stay in Varanasi, Kejriwal will essentially focus on corner meetings and padyatras. During the last five days of campaigning, he will do road shows and address big gatherings. Our budget does not allow us for big outdoor publicity campaign," said Mohan.
AAP's budget for Varanasi campaign is Rs 25-30 lakh. Donations made to Kejriwal so far total to Rs 40 lakh. Upper limit for campaign expenditure for him or other candidates is Rs 70 lakh.
AAP hopes Modi may not be able to spend much time in Varanasi because of his packed campaign schedule. This may help Kejriwal establish closer contact with locals. Currently, Kejriwal is covering villages in Rohania and Sevapuri, the two rural segments in Varanasi.
Shalini Gupta, organisation development adviser for AAP, said, "We call this place the nerve-centre. Our main activities include volunteer management, legal works, social media and publicity."
"Our main strength is our 10,000 local volunteers. About 3,000 have registered themselves to come here from outside," Gupta said. AAP is also getting volunteers from Gujarat. ""When people in Varanasi hear the truth of Gujarat from the people of Gujarat, they would know the real Modi. It's one of our main strategies," said a party source.
Mohan, who also ran Kejriwal's campaign when he defeated then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit by a huge margin, admitted that it is "a difficult battle. There we had time. We had presence in Delhi. It was a more urban setting. It helped us. But we're still confident of a very good show here," said Mohan.
But people here do not seem to be taking AAP too seriously.
"I don't see Kejriwal threatening Modi. But even if AAP does well and loses it can cash it on and go to people during Delhi and Haryana assembly polls slated later this year with head held high," said Hareram Sharma, a resident of chowk area. The BJP has won this seat five out of six times since 1991.
Of the 16,00,000 voters, 300,000 are Muslims.
With Mukhtar Ansari deciding against contesting from Varanasi, trying to avoid a major split in the Muslim vote bank, AAP is hopeful of an inroad. But the party keeps distancing itself from Ansari for obvious reasons. Another beneficiary may be Congress nominee Ajay Rai.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, as BSP nominee Ansari got 1.85 lakh votes, losing to BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi only by about 17,000 votes.
Nomination filing would begin on April 17 and the polling would take place on May 12.
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