Nearly 16 lakh voters will decide tomorrow the most high-profile contest of the ongoing Lok Sabha polls, where BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is facing a triangular fight in this holy city mythologically known to be stationed on Lord Shiva’s trident.
Modi is being challenged by Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, who says that Modi can’t become Prime Minister if he gets defeated from Varanasi, while Congress’ Ajay Rai is banking on his “son of the soil” image in what he calls a contest with ‘Siberian birds’.
BJP, on the other hand, is confident of a record win for Modi in a constituency which has been a saffron bastion for over two decades now, while it expects the ‘Modi wave’ and his projection as Prime Ministerial candidate to further widen the margin of victory.
The irony is that local issues have been put on back burner here and the contest is totally focussed on Modi, although the locals are grappling with a number of civic problems including pollution in the holy Ganga — the mainstay for Banaras due to religious, tourism and other reasons.
While BJP has made it battle of prestige, almost all other parties seem to be fighting this election to defeat Modi.
BJP says its main election issue remains development and good governance, though the campaign has mainly focussed on Modi. The other parties including AAP and Congress have been seeking votes against Modi and his “saffron politics”.
In the process, the election has been marred by polarisation on communal lines in Varanasi, which is a major pilgrimage destination for Hindus but Muslim community accounts for a sizeable chunk with over three lakh voters.
Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency comprises five assembly constituencies, two of which –Rohaniya and Sevapuri– are mainly rural areas with significant minority population.
The minority population is also considerable in three urban assembly constituencies — Varanasi North, Varanasi South and Varanasi Cantt.
Out of these, BJP has sitting MLAs from all three Varanasi assembly seats, while Rohaniya MLA Anupriya Patel is from Apna Dal, which has tied up with BJP for Lok Sabha polls, while she herself is contesting Lok Sabha election from Mirzapur.
Statistically, Varanasi has got a record number of 42 candidates in fray this time for Lok Sabha polls, including those from parties like SP, BSP and Trinamool Congress along with as many as 20 independents.
While SP and BSP candidates — Kailash Nath Chaurasiya and Vijay Prakash Jaiswal — are also expected to garner traditional votes that their respective parties command, the Trinamool candidate Indira Tiwari is looking for some votes from a significant Bengali population here and due to her lineage for being related to family of former Congress leader and MP Kamlapati Tripathi.
CPI(M) candidate Hiralal Yadav is also in the fray and is banking on dedicated Left votes in this Lok Sabha constituency where the communists used to be a formidable force before 90s.
However, the fight this time has mainly developed into a triangular contest between Modi, Kejriwal and Rai, although it was considered a ‘safe seat’ when BJP announced Modi’s candidature from here.
The entry of Arvind Kejriwal, who made a dramatic announcement of his intention to contest after claiming to have sought a referendum to this effect from the public of Varanasi, made the fight interesting.
Modi’s entry has made things difficult for Congress, which took a long time to decide its candidate before announcing five-term MLA Ajay Rai’s name.
Before that, a number of names did the rounds including that of senior leader Digvijay Singh, while Commerce Minister Anand Sharma also said at one point of time that he was ready to join the fray.
There was also speculation that Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka may be pitted against Modi, but the party and Priyanka herself dismissed such talk.
Finally Congress decided on Rai, who said that he wanted Priyanka and other Gandhi family members to campaign for him.
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi held an impressive roadshow in the city, although Priyanka refused to move outside Gandhi family strongholds Rae Bareli and Amethi for poll campaign.
As the campaign progressed, Varanasi became a battleground of rallies and roadshows, especially after Modi was denied to hold a rally in minority-dominated Beniabagh area.
Modi thereafter held a rally in Rohaniya and drove through Varanasi city with his motorcade, where people came out in large numbers on May 8.
The next day, Kejriwal also held a massive roadshow and addressed a public rally late in night, only to be followed by huge roadshows by Rahul Gandhi and Akhikesh Yadav (SP leader and UP Chief Minister) on May 10 — the last day of poll campaigning.
BJP made a big issue of Modi being denied permission for Beniabagh rally, especially after roadshows of Kejriwal and Gandhi were allowed to pass through the same area, and demanded removal of Returning Officer Pranjal Yadav, an IIT-educated IAS officer currently serving as District Magistrate of Varanasi.
While Election Commission refused to take any action against DM, it did appoint Tamil Nadu’s Chief Electoral Officer Pravin Kumar as a special election observer for Varanasi.
The Election Commission has also decided to deploy central paramilitary forces on all polling booths here, while massive security arrangements have been made with close to 45,000 security personnel from local police, CRPF, BSP and Rapid Action Force.
Besides, all the polling stations 1,562 are under CCTV coverage. The administration has moved out a large number of volunteers and supporters who had come to the city for supporting various candidates including Modi, Kejriwal and Rai.
At the peak of campaigning, the number of such outsider supporters stood at close to one lakh. BJP has hinted that Modi may retain Varanasi seat, as he is also fighting Lok Sabha polls from Vadodara in Gujarat.
His opponents have alleged that Modi was not sure of his victory and therefore he was fighting from two seats, while they have also been saying that the Gujarat Chief Minister may finally desert Varanasi.
Kejriwal is being accused of being a ‘bhagoda’ (deserter) for resigning as Delhi Chief Minister earlier and fleeing from governance, while Rai claims to be the only ‘son of soil’ in these polls.
SP candidate Chaurasiya however claims that even Rai was not a local as he is currently an MLA from Pindra, which happens to be within Varanasi district but is not part of this Lok Sabha constituency.
Intensifying the war of words, five-term MLA Rai claimed to have a better electoral record than Modi, saying he has been elected as MLA only thrice from Gujarat and has never fought Lok Sabha polls.
Rai is facing allegations of being a party-hopper, as he used to be with BJP once, then fought last Lok Sabha polls as SP candidate in 2009 and is currently a Congress MLA.
Rai came third in last Lok Sabha polls, when BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi won by a slender margin of about 17,000 voters
against Mukhtar Ansari.
A local strongman, Ansari, who is also in the fray from the nearby Ghoshi constituency, has declared his support for Rai, despite a long history of enmity between them.
This tie-up has however upset the vote bank statistics for Rai, who hails from prominent Bhumihar community.
Ansari is facing charges related to murder of once prominent Bhumihar leader Krishnanand Rai, whose wife Alka Rai shared the dais with Modi at his Rohaniya rally.
While Congress was hoping to win Muslim votes with Ansari’s support, Kejriwal is also trying hard to gain minority votes and has been focussing mainly on the areas dominated by them during his campaign.
In the meantime, proponents of ‘Save Ganga Campaign’ have secured commitments to their cause from Modi, Kejriwal and others in the fray, while the BJP leader went on to say that he has come here only because he was called by ‘mother Ganga’.
Both BJP and AAP have announced special Varanasi manifestos to lure the voters and they are trying hard to improve the voting percentage also.
The voter turnout in 2009 elections was just 42 per cent.
The huge influx of people has also added to the traffic jams and are making it inconvenient for the locals, but this also means good business for hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and other traders.
The population of main Varanasi city itself is over ten lakh and the density is very high at about 2,500 people per square kilometer.
Besides, the city attracts a huge tourist influx — about 30 lakh domestic and over 2 lakh foreign tourists a year — mostly because of being an important holy place for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, among others.
Varanasi, which is also known as Kashi and Benares, boasts of about 100 ghats alongside Ganga river and thousands of galis or alleys across the city and a temple or other religious place can be seen on every corner.
But this city of temples and weavers also fears a highlypolarised elections on religious lines.
While senior leaders from BJP dismiss the impact of any anti-Modi polarisation among Muslim voters, who account for about 18 per cent votes here and close to 30 per cent in urban areas, local leaders from various parties including BJP said that there was a high probability of Muslim votes being polarised towards the strongest candidate against Gujarat Chief Minister.
Local leaders from various parties including Congress, SP and BSP, also accused Kejriwal of trying to influence Muslim voters by projecting him as the strongest person against Modi.
On the other hand, Modi had said that Muslims of Varanasi would love him once he comes here.
Amid all the high-pitch political drama, these elections would certainly get into history, when even trivial issues like a candidate garlanding statue of Madan Mohan Malviya while wearing his footwear became an issue. PTI