Modi has had a head start in this constituency that he snatched from BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi. Just as well because Joshi is highly unpopular here, and there is little to no sympathy for him in the constituency he so badly neglected. Modi, on the other hand, has taken over Varanasi with his hoardings and posters staring down at the electorate who know that he is far ahead of the others, do not see Rai as a major threat, and while the interest in Kejriwal remains the electorate here is not really certain whether he is interested in giving a serious fight, and whether he will be able to with just a month left for the polling, and not a AAP volunteer in sight. Or at least that is what the people on the streets had to say.
Varanasi sees itself as a BJP stronghold, with several persons in the narrow winding gullies behind the ghats maintaining that Modi would win without blinking an eye. Why? The reasons given out were basically derivatives of two 1) he is a prime ministerial candidate and this is the first time that Varanasi will be sending a PM to Delhi: 2) he is an excellent administrator and we are all tired of waiting for this city to revive, look at the broken roads, look at the miserable infrastructure, look at the dirt and squalor, no one has done anything for us for decades, he will change all this.
The negatives, offered by Congress supporters largely, was that he would leave the seat and retain Vadodara. And that he would get his close confidante Amit Shah elected from Varanasi instead. The first argument was met by Modi supporters with a shrug of the shoulders and a “well if that happens let us see.” But the second point that Amit Shah could then represent Varanasi drew strong reaction from all around, as clearly he is extremely unpopular with the Varanasi BJP and the voters. However, these arguments are clearly not sufficient to eat into Modi’s popularity in Varanasi.
However, a second look does reveal a few fissures in the seeming unanimous “we want Modi” chorus. The Muslims, three lakhs in this constituency, are not going to vote for the BJP or Modi (more on this vote in coming issues of The Citizen). And judging from street responses there is clearly a big vote in Varanasi that is looking intently at Kejriwal, a trifle impatient with the wait, but interested nevertheless. There is a vote, that cuts across all castes interestingly, that is looking to see what change the AAP leader represents, and whether he could be an alternative of sorts. This seems to be a limited vote in the city, but could be quite substantial in the rural parts of the Varanasi constituency that had interestingly voted in the last elections for Mukhtar Ansari, a candidate of some notoriety and currrently in jail, in numbers that had placed him second to Joshi. In fact Ansari had lost the last parliamentary elections by just 17000 odd votes.
This support was evident even in the hard core BJP areas around the ghats. Two Brahmins selling delicious digestive mixes that one sampled freely during the conversation said that Modi was ahead, but then tempered this with, “let us see what happens when Kejriwal starts the campaign, there are many who are looking at him, and we can never say what will happen until the votes are cast.” Several echoed this as one walked through the streets of Varanasi, making it clear that Kejriwal had aroused considerable interest, and could give a fight if he was able to convince the people with his arguments. Interestingly though the BJP spread criticism that he ‘ran away’ from governing Delhi has spread through Varanasi with every other person speaking of this, and wondering whether he would run away from this constituency as well.
But there is a vote and interest in him, that surpasses the support for the Congress candidate Rai at this stage. The pendulum could swing the other way and settle firmly with Modi, but in the today of hard politics the interest is definitely evident in the number of locals offering to house AAP volunteers, give space for election offices, and work as polling agents. That till now there was no one from AAP to get the campaign going is another story, with Kejriwal scheduled to arrive in Varanasi within the next couple of days, and his team here now to kick start the campaign with full optimism that one month, without even one election office in the constituency at this moment, will be sufficient to out race Modi in his own party’s stronghold.