Indian Express

Day before, talk in town: Benaras may still spring a surprise

Once it seemed that Arvind Kejriwal was not a serious contender, but things changed suddenly. Tweet This
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The AAP leader has won many admirers just for daring to take on a BJP bastion despite being a political novice. The AAP leader has won many admirers just for daring to take on a BJP bastion despite being a political novice.

As laidback Varanasi drifts back to its old life, the owner of Riturang Store at Lahurabir summed up the undercurrent in the holy city that with 40 others marks the end of Elections 2014 on Monday. “Benaras ki janta bahut sarfiri hai,” he said. “Sabko theek kar degi (The Benaras public is unpredictable. It will fix them all).”

For, having seen enough drama and enough vitriol to match the most spectacular contest of the polls — fittingly rounding up an election that has seen plenty of the same — Varanasi was wondering on Sunday if there could still be a surprise in store. BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi will win and comfortably, most agree, but, they ask in the same breath: “Is there something yet left?”

“Things have shifted a lot in three weeks. Once it seemed that Arvind Kejriwal was not a serious contender, but things changed suddenly. Ajay Rai (of the Congress) is a distant third, and there now seems a direct contest between Modi and Kejriwal,” says Jolie Wood, visiting assistant professor from Allegheny College, Pennsylvania. She teaches Indian politics and is in Varanasi to observe the contest.

Except for the last-day road show of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, the campaign of the Samajwadi Party and BSP remained invisible, and a lot is being read into it given that Rai had contested in 2009 from Varanasi on an SP ticket.

If that’s a calculation, there is another one. Rai has forged alliances with several caste leaders. If he dents a section of the BJP’s upper caste votes, and the Aam Aadmi Party also snatches some urban votes of the BJP, it could offset Modi’s seemingly wide margin and might even out the contest, or at least make it truly triangular. The BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi had won the 2009 election with just 2.03 lakh votes.

Varanasi has some 3 lakh Muslim votes, and Wood claims to have noted a paradigm shift compared to previous elections. “In the 2007 Assembly elections, the Muslims in Varanasi voted for the SP, BSP and Congress. There is more unity among them this time. It seems they are voting together, as a community, for Kejriwal,” she says.

The AAP leader has also won many admirers just for daring to take on a BJP bastion despite being a political novice. Indian politics has always had a tacit omerta code of not contesting against powerful leaders; Kejriwal changed that. If he is taking on Modi, fellow partyman Kumar Vishwas is pitted against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi.

However, Kejriwal’s posturing as a permanent opposition might also cost him. Few in Varanasi appreciate his decision to resign as CM 49 days into government in Delhi, with his rivals dubbing him “bhagoda (deserter)”. Kejriwal’s supporters too admit: “If he had not left Delhi, his stature and candidate would be much bigger.”

Writer-editor Giriraj Kiradoo defends: “The BJP has been around for 30 years, the Left and Congress since the beginning.

All of them have failed consistently, still people give them chances. But we want to judge AAP by just 49 days!”

Varanasi is also the epicentre of 17 other Poorvanchal seats that vote on Monday. From neighbouring Azamgarh is contesting SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. If Varanasi is Modi’s Hindu symbol, Azamgarh is a Muslim metaphor for Mulayam, who is also contesting from another seat. Ballia has former PM Chandra Shekhar’s son Neeraj Shekhar in the race, while BJP heavyweight Kalraj Mishra is contesting from Deoria and Union minister R P N Singh from Kushinagar.

In unprecedented security arrangements, 45 companies of Central paramilitary forces, eight of RAF and two of PAC have been deployed in Varanasi for the Monday polls. The Election Commission will also install CCTV cameras at every booth.
Monday also marks a crucial test for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, with 17 seats voting. Apart from the UP and Bengal constituencies, Bihar’s six seats go to polls on Monday.

However, none of them probably matches Varanasi in electoral fervour. The constituency has enjoyed the attention, but as reflected in the remark of the Riturang store’s owner, there is also a realisation that it could be fleeting. “Better the visiting dignitaries also vote for us and elect an MP for us,” dismisses one voter.

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