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Day before, talk in town: Is more surprise in store for Varanasi?
As laidback Varanasi drifts back to its old life, the owner of Riturang Store at Lahurabir sums 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 says. “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 more. 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 continued…