How Arvind Kejriwal survived the BJP’s psychological warfare in Varanasi

Every morning, when Arvind Kejriwal leaves for campaigning from his party’s office in Varanasi’s Shivaji Nagar, the air is already so hot, it almost leaves one stupefied. His car passes by a row of houses where people have put up Bharatiya Janata Party flags on their balconies. On the main road outside, he encounters one of the many giant posters the Congress party has put up in support of its candidate, Ajay Rai. It has Mr. Rai standing in the backdrop of a ghat, his eyes closed, and his hands folded in prayer. He looks like a raffish Zen master.

Mr. Kejriwal’s car is escorted by a police jeep. Behind him is another party car, carrying a few volunteers who help him negotiate his way through the surge of people. Many people want to shake hands with him or hand over a piece of paper on which they have scribbled their grievances. He lets himself be guided in and out of a gathering, as streamlets of sweat trickle down his sunburnt face. They sometimes fall on his spectacles which he then wipes clean with the hem of his untucked half-sleeve shirt. His party cap that he wears all the time is so heavy with perspiration, it could sink in water.

Supporters and listeners

In the last few days, the number of people who have attended Mr. Kejriwal’s public meetings has increased. The crowd that gathers to listen to him is divided into two groups: people who sit on the chairs or around them are those who have already decided to vote for him; the other is of people who stop by, mostly across the road, or those who peer out of their houses or shops. These are people who are voting for other parties or are still undecided.

In his speeches, Mr. Kejriwal tries to get the second group of people to cross the road. “Some of you may be Narendra Modi supporters. That is fine, but do hear me out,” he addresses them directly. While he is at it, his volunteers distribute pamphlets among people. The pamphlet is titled: “Mein Modi ji ke khilaaf chunaav kyun lad raha hun? (Why I am fighting elections against Mr. Modi?)” He repeats most of its content in his speeches. “Modi ji has sold off Gujarat to industrialists,” he says. One volunteer then hands over a bunch of documents to him. He lifts them up for everyone to see. “Documents don’t lie,” he tells the people. He goes on to say how he had filed an FIR against the industrialist Mukesh Ambani after he became Delhi’s Chief Minister. He tells them about a letter that Mr. Modi purportedly wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to increase the cost of gas.

“I wrote to Mr. Singh, asking him to keep in abeyance the decision to increase gas prices, but he never replied. Then we went to the Election Commission, asking them to put a stay over the increase. They passed orders and that is how we ensured that you don’t have to bear the rising cost of gas for two months,” he says. He tells them that increase in gas price will lead to increase in cost of electricity and food items as well.

“They may kill us, they may cut us into pieces, but we won’t let them increase the gas prices,” he shouts. There is a wide applause.

“Mr. Modi uses Mr. Mukesh Ambani’s helicopter. Rahul Gandhi uses Mr. Ambani’s helicopter. Whosoever wins, it is clear that Mr. Ambani will run this country. That is why it is crucial to defeat both Modi ji and Rahul Gandhi,” he says.

At Pandeypur, in Varanasi city, Ramdeen, who is an employee of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), gets down from his cycle to listen to Mr. Kejriwal. In 15 minutes, he has crossed over to the other side where Mr. Kejriwal speaks. “One thing is there, whatever he says,” he says looking at Mr. Kejriwal. “It makes sense. He is right.”

In the last elections, Ramdeen says, he had voted for Mayawati’s candidate. “But this time, I want to give a chance to the Aam Aadmi Party,” he mumbles.

Change in perception

On March 25, when Arvind Kejriwal visited Varanasi and announced his decision to contest against Mr. Modi, he was ridiculed by BJP supporters. They threw eggs at him, and ink, and pelted his car with stones. Many AAP volunteers found their pockets picked. A month later, on April 23, he filed his nomination for the battle in Varanasi. The very next day, Mr. Modi filed his nomination, too. The roadshow that he led was shown live across television channels with many grossly exaggerating the number of people who took part in it.

Mr. Kejriwal’s roadshow a day earlier had drawn less people, but it was significant since the AAP hardly had any cadre in Varanasi. Many people had turned up from outside Varanasi to lend support to Mr. Kejriwal. But so had they for Mr. Modi’s show.

After the elections in Delhi, many senior AAP leaders reached Varanasi to connect with people. For about a week or so, a senior AAP leader says, the response was lukewarm. But by the last week of April, it had become clear that Mr. Kejriwal had managed to secure a foothold in Varanasi.

So, how did this happen?

A part of the BJP’s strategy, say insiders in the local party unit, was to intimidate Mr. Kejriwal and portray him as bhagoda – a deserter who had quit the Delhi Chief Minister’s post after 49 days. Everywhere they went, Mr. Kejriwal and his associates would be confronted by abusive BJP supporters who disrupted their meetings. “We countered them politely by asking them to engage in a discussion with us,” says Manish Sisodia, a close associate of Mr. Kejriwal. “But they lacked patience, while it was our strength.”

On April 17, Mr. Kejriwal and others visited the famous Keshav panwala where some of Mr. Modi’s supporters started to abuse them. Mr. Kejriwal, say eyewitnesses, threw a garland at them. They reacted by throwing stones. At this time, the police intervened and escorted Mr. Kejriwal and other leaders to safety. “One of the BJP supporters climbed atop a wall and threw a big stone on Mr. Kejriwal’s car,” recalls Rohit Pandey, an AAP volunteer.

The next day they were connecting with people in Company Bagh when a group of BJP and Congress supporters began shouting slogans against them. At one of the ghats, another gang of BJP supporters began hurling abuses at them. An eyewitness says Mr. Kejriwal went to them and asked them why they supported Mr. Modi. One of them replied: because Mr. Modi’s mother lives in a six by six feet room. Mr. Kejriwal is believed to have replied: “Isn’t it a shame that while Mr. Modi lives in the Chief Minister’s bungalow, he has not bothered to call his mother there? My parents live with me.”

AAP volunteers say two meetings on April 27 made a huge difference in people’s perception. One was held in the Lanka market where a group of BJP supports began to shout “Arvind Kejriwal, go back” and “Narendra Modi zindabad” as soon as Mr. Kejriwal began to speak. He listened to them patiently and told them he was all for a debate. “Give me three reasons why Mr. Modi should win,” he asked them.

On the same day, a sabha was organised in Khojwa area in front of the BJP mayor’s house. About 2,500 people attended that rally. “We went to meet the priests,” says Mr. Sisodia. “They told us while they wanted Mr. Modi to become Prime Minister, in Varanasi they would vote for Mr. Kejriwal since only he was capable of cleaning up the Ganges and the ghats.”

In Shivaji Nagar itself, where AAP’s office is located, AAP volunteers say they have begun to notice a remarkable difference in the attitude of the people in the colony who are predominantly BJP supporters. “They now offer us water and tea,” said a volunteer, Akshay Malhotra.

In his speeches, Mr. Kejriwal always points out that while he had taken a dip in the Ganges, Mr. Modi chose to take a helicopter even from the airport to BHU. “Modi ji says he will clean the Ganges like Gujarat’s Sabarmati river. Do research on Sabarmati on the internet, it is the third most polluted river in the country,” he says.

He refers to the BJP supporters calling him bhagoda. “Where did I run away? Did I go to Pakistan? No, I am here,” he says. He then pulls at the hearts of the Hindu majority. “Bhagwan Ram is lucky, there was no BJP in his time. Otherwise they would have called him a bhagoda, too, when he went to the forest.” And some more: “I came out of the Kashi Vishwanath temple wearing a rudraksh and the BJP supporters threw eggs on me. Is this Hindu culure? Is this Kashi’s culture?” And in the end: “Har Har Mahadev” in response to BJP’s “Har Har Modi.” “Some people are chanting Modi ji’s name as if they are on opium. They need to break his spell,” he says.

Mr. Kejriwal’s sustained campaign has left the BJP worried. The attacks on AAP supporters have increased. On April 30, a group of students campaigning against Mr. Modi outside BHU were heckled by BJP supporters. The group then approached the Lanka police station to file an FIR. They were still at it when a few journalists received calls from Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a self-proclaimed fan of Mr. Modi, whose party, Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, has been in the past responsible for assaulting AAP leader Prashant Bhushan.

“Go to Lanka police station, our people have stopped anti-Modi campaigners,” he told them. He has been camping in Varanasi.

“We had expected this in a broad sense, but we never thought the BJP will lose sense of balance like this,” says the AAP’s Yogender Yadav.

A sense of foreboding

The violent streak of the BJP supporters has left the old residents of Varanasi worried. The author Kashinath Singh, whose Hindi novel Kashi ka Assi chronicled the changing political landscape of Varanasi, says he no longer goes to Pappu tea stall, close to Assi ghat, that he made famous through his novel. “It has been taken over by BJP supporters. They won’t say anything to me, but to people of other ideologies they have begun to say: Go to Pakistan!” he says.

The people of non-BJP ideologies now frequent another tea stall called Poi ki dukaan. “Here, we have tea like the good old times, we discuss politics, we fight over it, but it never goes ugly because the BJP walas are in a minority,” Mr. Singh says.

Poi ki dukaan is full in the evening, and people assemble here, drinking tea, reading newspapers and debating the current political scenario.

The debate invariably veers towards Mr. Kejriwal.

“Kejriwal is right, the people here seem to be opiated with Modi,” says one.

“Do you think Kejriwal can conjure a miracle?” asks another.

“No miracles are possible with opium,” the first one replies. “It can only induce hallucination.”

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