The SP and the BSP, whose chiefs have vowed to defeat Narendra Modi in Varanasi, have been noticeably subdued in the campaign. Between them, the two have taken the Election Commission’s permission for just 24 rallies here, compared to the BJP’s 119. Even the Congress, seen as number two, has taken permission for just 29, but it is the quietness of the SP and the BSP that has set people wondering if it is part of a strategy.
The Aam Aadmi Party, incidentally, has outscored them all with 182.
Varanasi is a BJP stronghold, the party having won five of the last six elections, but the SP and the BSP too are strong and polled more votes between them last time than the BJP’s winner, Murli Manohar Joshi. And those two candidates have now come together for a common Congress cause.
Then BSP candidate Mukhtar Ansari, who has since formed the Qaumi Ekta Dal, polled 1.85 lakh votes while the SP’s Ajay Rai, the present Congress candidate, polled 1.23 lakh, their 3 lakh-plus total far exceeding Joshi’s 2.03 lakh.
This time, the SP and BSP candidates have hardly been seen campaigning. An aide of Rai looks optimistically at this: “Even if the SP and the BSP don’t openly declare their support but remain subdued, it will benefit the Congress.” Ashok Dhawan, the BJP’s in-charge for Varanasi, says, “We knew a situation might come when the SP, the BSP and the Congress would team up against us. We are prepared for that.”
The Qaumi Ekta Dal has this time thrown its weight behind Rai, an archrival of Mukhtar Ansari who is an accused in the murder of Rai’s brother. Rai and Mukhtar’s brother Afzal both tell The Indian Express they have ignored personal rivalry in the national interest. Afzal Ansari says, “Mukhtar lost to Joshi by just 17,000 votes last time. We sacrificed Mukhtar’s candidature to forge a joint front against Modi.”
Afzal Ansari says he had earlier thought of supporting the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal in the belief that he was the strongest candidate. “Kejriwal is very arrogant and declined the offer. I then chose the Congress to defeat Modi,” he says.
Rai believes Ansari’s support will bring in non-BJP, upper-caste votes that would otherwise have veered towards Kejriwal. Unlike in western UP, Varanasi’s religious fault-lines are blurred with Muslims saying they are not necessarily against the BJP and have voted for various parties.
Muslims in urban areas such as Nai Sadak and Dal Mandi are impressed with Kejriwal. “Ansari seeks votes for Rai, but Kejriwal is a better choice. We will decide only at the end,” says Nadeem Khan, a young shopkeeper who has a framed photo of Real Madrid hanging behind him, and videos of BJP men harassing AAP workers in his Samsung Galaxy.
Afzal admits the “wind was blowing another way as Muslims did not know who to follow”, but is confident he can now rally the constituency’s 2.5 lakh Muslims and one lakh Patel OBCs behind Rai.
Solidly behind Modi are much of the 2.5 lakh Brahmin votes, besides other upper caste votes and a substantial section of OBCs. The BJP expects the final surge if and when Modi camps here after May 7.
The AAP factor
Kejriwal holds 4 jan sabhas a day. AAP volunteers have visited some two lakh homes and claim that by the end they will have visited every house in the constituency at least twice. Residents agree this and the appeal of young AAP volunteers can persuade a lot of floating votes.
Around midnight Wednesday, three BTech third-year students of IIT-Kharagpur campaign along the ghats. They wear AAP caps, carry the jhaadu and are among 40 IIT students who have volunteered for AAP. They discuss the chances of a Kejriwal victory: “30:70?”
“We go door to door. People ask us about why Kejriwal resigned in Delhi. We explain his ideals,” says one of them.
These students, locals say, get a swift reception at the homes of upper castes, supposedly a core base of the BJP. The AAP believes it has won over a number of Muslims and Dalits, a fact Rai doesn’t deny, but the extent to which it can influence the upper castes is not yet clear. Neither is how far the deal between the Qaumi Ekta Dal and the Congress will influence Muslim voters.