Buzz builds up over possible Modi-Kejriwal contest
Who wouldn’t wish that the Prime Minister represents his constituency,” exclaimed Navneet Pandey, a priest here, in jubilation moments after the Bharatiya Janata Party declared Narendra Modi its Lok Sabha candidate from this temple town.
The announcement, which seemed a mere formality, sent the local BJP cadre and supporters celebrating. The party, which holds three of the five Assembly seats in Varanasi, is confident that nothing can stop Mr. Modi from winning. Ravindra Jaiswal, Varanasi North MLA, predicts that Mr. Modi will win by the “largest margin” anywhere in India. “The people of Varanasi have already assumed ‘Modiji’ as the winner,” he said.
The party, however, is aware that its faction owing allegiance to senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi, who was “forced” to shift from the constituency to Kanpur, might play “spoilsport.” Some observers view that despite the BJP’s efforts to present Mr. Modi as a “Vikas Purush,” his Other Backward Classes identity may not be fully acceptable to the Brahmins of the city, for his entry comes at the cost of a Brahmin.
The three lakh members of the community make up one-fifth of the electorate. But Professor Badri Narayan of the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, argues that the “soft Hinduvta” image laced with the “development rhetoric” created around Mr. Modi will “overpower” any “minimal dissent” from the community.
In his Uttar Pradesh rallies, the party has attempted to link Mr. Modi’s persona to that of Lord Shiva, with chants such as “Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi.”
Varanasi is believed to the abode of Lord Shiva, who is worshiped by most castes. “The loss of a Brahmin candidate is compensated by the Hinduvta image of Modi, which appeals to the upper castes. It is unlikely that the Brahmins will shift to the Congress en bloc even if they field a Brahmin candidate. [Modi] choosing Varanasi sends across a message that the BJP-RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] has not abandoned the Temple issue,” says Professor Narayan.
Local people share the view, substantiating it with the point that there exists a “general resentment” against Dr. Joshi. Ramji Tiwari, an accountant and Brahmin, feels sections of his community are disappointed over Dr. Joshi’s exit, but there will not be any electoral impact. “In the past, we have had a non-Brahmin BJP candidate, Shankar Prasad Jaiswal (three terms). So there is no trend here. Joshi has left no mark. The public is disappointed, irrespective of caste or religion,” he says.
A BJP leader confides that the RSS viewed Dr. Joshi’s chances of retaining Varanasi as “dim.”
The BJP hopes that Mr. Modi’s candidature in Varanasi will have an impact on 20-25 seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh and create a ripple in adjoining constituencies in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Pankaj Kumar, Professor of Political Science of Allahabad University, however, says that Mr. Modi’s impact will “not be so drastic.” “The ‘Modi wave’ has peaked. And his impact has been waning. The party will gain, but will their seats increase five-fold? Unlikely,” he says.
Moreover, observers believe that Mr. Modi’s journey in Varanasi will not be as smooth as expected, and tricky caste equations can be potential dampeners. The Samajwadi Party has fielded Uttar Pradesh Minister of State Kailash Chaurasia, a Vaishya.
Former Varanasi MP Rajesh Mishra, a Brahmin, and Ajay Rai, a Bhumihar with a substantial clout regionally and known to retain Brahmin support, are contenders for Congress ticket.
The Bahujan Samaj Party is likely to field Vijay Prakash Jaiswal, a Vaishya businessman.
But Subash Gatade, analyst, feels that with Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal jumping into the fray, things will only get complicated for Mr. Modi. Also, alleged don-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari, who stood a close second in 2009 while running on BSP ticket, has decided to train his guns on Mr. Modi.
“Though the BJP has been winning from here, it is not a safe seat,” Mr. Gatade says.
“In a multicornered contest, with Kejriwal stepping in, anybody could scrape through, even Mukhtar. Kejriwal is bound to cut into the business class votes.”
However, Mr. Gatade feels that if the contest turns into “Mukhtar vs Modi,” it could lead to a communal polarisation of votes in not only Varanasi but also across eastern Uttar Pradesh. “Mr. Kejriwal will cut into some votes, say 25,000. That’s all. But only the BSP candidate, who is a Vaishya, with Muslim and Dalit support, is in a position to stop Modi,” says Santosh Yadav, a Ph. D. scholar at Banaras Hindu University.
The Yadavs in urban Varanasi are traditionally split between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP.
Social activist Lenin Raghuvanshi, who opposes both the RSS and Mr. Ansari, says he will campaign across Varanasi to urge people not to vote for “fanatic and criminal elements.” “Varanasi is the city of tolerance and pluralism. We won’t put that under risk.”