Ghats and galis of Benaras have always been familiar with hordes of locals and tourists, but presence of over 50,000 political volunteers - working for various parties - seems to have made this city the ‘poll capital’ of the country.
A large majority of these volunteers have come from outside Varanasi and, interestingly, candidates fielded by most major political parties for this Lok Sabha seat are also being termed ‘outsiders’, including BJP’s Prime Ministerial nominee Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal.
Congress candidate Ajay Rai is a Varanasi local, but currently he is an MLA from Pindra assembly constituency, which is nearby but outside this Lok Sabha seat.
Samajwadi Party’s Kailash Chaurasiya is a sitting MLA from nearby Mirzapur assembly constituency.
Mr. Kejriwal, who served as Chief Minister of Delhi, is already being termed by his opponents a ‘deserter who has come from Delhi’, while there is also a talk about Mr. Modi possibly leaving the Varanasi seat, even if he wins from here, to retain Vadodara, the other seat from where he is contesting Lok Sabha polls.
Notwithstanding these apprehensions, all parties are leaving no stone unturned in their poll campaign and the activities are expected to further heat up with the filing of Mr. Modi’s nomination on April 24.
Mr. Rai and Mr. Chaurasiya have already filed their nominations, while Mr. Kejriwal is expected to do so on April 23.
BJP leaders said a final list is being drawn for public meetings of top party functionaries from across the city, while Mr. Rai has already appealed to Gandhi family members and other top party leaders to come for campaign.
SP leaders also expect party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to come here, while BSP is finalising plans for a visit by Mayawati.
Mr. Kejriwal came here last week and will stay till polling on May 12.
According to figures given by leaders of various parties, the cumulative number of party workers and volunteers working for different candidates at present exceeds 50,000 and this could soon touch the one-lakh mark.
That could mean an average of one volunteer for every 10 voters coming out to cast their votes. Varanasi is estimated to have nearly 16 lakh voters and a turnout of about 60 per cent would roughly mean 10 lakh people coming out to vote.
Adding to the presence of a large number of people working for different candidates, hundreds of mediapersons are also descended here to cover this high-profile battle, while many corporates have also sent their representatives to keep a close watch on the trends emerging on a daily basis.
BJP’s national spokesperson Nalin Kohli, who is camping here for the polls, said, “Varanasi has become political capital of these elections with Mr. Modi contesting from here and the interest would grow further in coming days.
“This entire election is being fought by BJP on one hand with the agenda of development and, on the other hand, with an agenda of anti-Modi-ism by the rest of the parties,” he said.
Mr. Kejriwal has already said that a defeat for Mr. Modi in Varanasi would ensure that the Gujarat Chief Minister does not become Prime Minister, while other parties have also focussed their campaigns so far on Mr. Modi.
Volunteers from different parties have begun marching across the city in large numbers, while Mr. Rai also held a roadshow with a huge convoy of party workers and supporters on the day of his nomination filing on April 17. Mr. Modi is expected to hold a roadshow covering about 2-km before filing his nomination papers. The party is already working to ensure that the number of people present for that runs into tens of thousands, BJP leaders said in Varanasi.
BJP has taken a huge lead in terms of the number of ‘volunteers at work’ in Varanasi and their strength is already estimated to be over 35,000, according to leaders within the party and in organisations related to it.
This includes about 5,000 local youths and a similar number of party workers from Varanasi, while resources have been pooled in from many adjoining districts, as also from different parts of the country, including the far-south.
However, it is the members of ABVP, the student wing of BJP, and the cadre of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), as well as many other related organisations, which contribute the most to the total number of people working on Mr. Modi’s campaign in Varanasi, according to local BJP leaders and senior functionaries of RSS and ABVP.
Besides, a large number of ‘standalone Modi’ supporters are also already here and this component would grow manifold once polling is over in Gujarat.
The numbers are expected to increase further for all parties as volunteers are expected to be brought in from different parts of the country once Lok Sabha polls in those areas are over.
Polling in Varanasi would be held in the last phase of Lok Sabha elections, which is spread over nine phases and began on April 7.
Among other parties, AAP has also brought in a large number of volunteers from Delhi and expects more people to join in from other states in the coming days.
AAP leaders also said that students in Varanasi, which has five full-fledged universities and colleges affiliated to a sixth one, Poorvanchal University, are working as its volunteers.
Congress’ Rai has also roped in volunteers and supporters from his assembly constituency and other adjoining areas in large numbers - which, however, come a distant second to that of BJP and Mr. Modi at the moment.
Similarly, parties like SP and BSP also have a strong cadre presence, while another regional party, Apna Dal, has deployed its workers in support of Mr. Modi after entering into an alliance with BJP.
CPI(M) candidate Heera Lal Yadav is also in the fray and all Left party workers are campaigning for him, while Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has brought in party workers from West Bengal for its candidate Indira Tiwari.
According to a local BJP leader, the party has roped in workers and functionaries from over 80 wards in Varanasi, while all its local MLAs, corporators and elected panchayat members and their respective supporters are working throughout the Lok Sabha seat, which comprises five assembly constituencies.
In a way, this huge influx of people has 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 local population of Varanasi city itself is over 10 lakh and the density is high at about 2,500 people per square kilometre. Besides, the city attracts a huge tourist influx - about 30 lakh domestic and over 2 lakh foreign tourists a year - mostly for being an important holy place for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, among others.
Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Benares, boasts of about 100 ghats along Ganga River and thousands of galis or alleys throughout the city. A temple or some religious place can be seen at every corner of the city.