In Varanasi as in Amethi, the principal contender is a political heavyweight. If the contest in each place is worth watching, it is for a small but lively Opposition

Varanasi and Amethi could not be more different. One a bustling, throbbing tourist attraction, and the other a non-descript rural pocket, lifeless for the most part except when elections come around.

Stereotyped as the temple town, Varanasi in actuality is more nuanced and layered than its overt religious symbols would suggest. On one level, Varanasi is charmingly cosmopolitan, its spirit captured best by the Banarasi saree, a joint enterprise between Hindus and Muslims.

But if ganga-jamni sanskriti — a glowing local term for Hindu-Muslim co-existence — is the leitmotif of the town’s congested by-lanes, the language and mood closer to the temples and ghats are undoubtedly Hindutva. The intersection between the two worldviews renders Varanasi vulnerable to communal hostilities, and yet the town’s in-built resilience unfailingly ensures that normality returns swiftly enough. And when Varanasi is at peace, it is a delight for the visitor who cannot but be enchanted by the wit, intelligence and amazing political grasp of its people.

Three hours away by car, Amethi has no character of its own, save its celebrated association with the Nehru-Gandhi clan. For Amethites, the Gandhi pocket borough is both their proud identity and a trap from which they cannot escape.

Potential prime ministerial seat

Varanasi and Amethi are two different worlds, but they are connected in this general election by many commonalities — and equally set apart by compelling dissimilarities. Each is a potential prime ministerial seat, though it is by now clear who looks poised to get there. Narendra Modi is seen to be on the cusp of power nationally and internationally. By contrast, no one even in Amethi believes that Rahul Gandhi is a serious contender for the high office.

In Varanasi as in Amethi, a small but dynamic opposition space has opened up that has invested the election with life, colour and loads of symbolism, and saved it from being an uncontested walkover for the principal candidate.

It is anybody’s guess how well the Aam Aadmi Party will fare in Varanasi, but what cannot be disputed is Arvind Kejriwal’s emergence as the natural leader of those opposed to the vision and mission of Mr. Modi. Simply put, Varanasi today has a dominant view, and a vigorous, vivacious counter-view. Obviously the view is of Mr. Modi’s supporters. Aggressive and war-like, they celebrate him, worship him and toast him as the harbinger of change and prosperity, and most importantly see him as possessing the muscle to stand for Hindu India.

The counter-view, articulated in the sharp and sometime abusive words of Mr. Kejriwal, has been equally bought into, but mainly by those on the margins — Muslims, sections of Dalits and the economically poor. Their identification with Mr. Kejriwal derives as much from the AAP’s own financially dire state as from the daring he has shown in painting Mr. Modi as a proxy for the big corporates. Obviously the view is that Mr. Kejriwal ran away from responsibility in Delhi. Equally obviously, the counter-view is that he has sacrificed his seat for a principle.

Unsurprisingly, it is a smallish but strongly committed audience that turns up to hear Mr. Kejriwal at his inaugural election rally. A look around the venue suggests the presence of Muslims in overwhelming numbers, though those seated on the stage, including Mr. Kejriwal, seem oblivious to this. If anything, the speeches have a Hindu overtone, with shouts of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ interspersing the robust attacks on Mr. Modi. If Muslims at the venue are unperturbed by this it is because they understand the importance of Hindu symbols in Varanasi.

The absence of pro-Muslim rhetoric is also necessary in the interest of avoiding a Hindu-Muslim polarisation seen as the typical route to a BJP victory. Besides, ‘Har Har Mahadev’ from Mr. Kejriwal and Co is an affirmation of faith in the ‘real’ Lord as against the ‘usurper’ Lord with his own slogan: ‘Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi’ (Divine Modi in every house).

In Badi Bazaar, Varanasi’s largest Muslim neighbourhood, the mood is unmistakeably pro-Kejriwal. Inside the home of a trader in Banarasi silk, Muslim intellectuals discuss their strategy, and the consensus is that Muslims must keep a low profile and do nothing to draw attention to themselves. Ateeque Ansari, who in the last election had campaigned for the local Robin Hood, Mukhtar Ansari, has not just switched sides but is now fully vested in a Kejriwal victory. “I tell my people to be Muslim at home and in the Masjid, but not in the polling booth.”

Twist of fate

It is an ironic twist of fate: Muslims want Mr. Modi defeated, and it is in their own self-interest that they downsize themselves as a community and underplay their collective identity. They know how easily the perception of a Muslim consolidation can wreck Mr. Kejriwal’s chances.

The tragedy of a community having to function in hiding because its overt presence could facilitate Mr. Modi’s victory is a disturbing aspect of the Varanasi election. Yet, as election day draws near, there are newer worries — and these have to do with the possible splintering of the Muslim vote. Community elders had barely convinced 2009 candidate Mukhtar Ansari not to re-enter the fray, when came the news that the Congress was fielding Ajay Rai, a local favourite and a supposed ‘friend’ of the Muslims.

For Mr. Kejriwal’s supporters it has been a vexing, paradoxical challenge: They contrived not to show off their Muslim support for fear of driving the election towards Hindu-Muslim polarisation. But this conscious playing down has also meant that the confused community would become vulnerable to appeals by multiple candidates.

Amethites have always been a pampered lot, thanks to the Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi’s arrival in 2004 sealed the seat’s VVIP status. Though Amethi at the time was represented by Sonia Gandhi, the son seemed aspirationally in tune with the young. Ten years on, the exuberance has vanished, replaced by resentment at being taken for granted. And this despite open acknowledgment that the Gandhis and Amethi are synonymous.

Naturally, there is excitement that for the first time in a decade, Amethi’s opposition space has truly opened up. If nothing, the election would be an opportunity to vent. The AAP’s Kumar Vishwas, who has been in the district for months, has bought himself a home, and revels in telling his audience: “Rahul stays in the guest house, not me.” He also faithfully recites the local complaints which include bad roads, truant electricity, lack of jobs and the son’s inability to mingle with the ordinary folks. In one cluster of villages, the angst is so deep that there is some talk of even boycotting the election.

Mr. Vishwas, who was once a stand-up comedian, draws out his audience via laughs, gags and a Q&A session that never fails to bring out the complaints. Yet now he has another pop star rival to contend with. Indeed, the Amethi scene promises to fairly crackle with the arrival of Smriti Irani, soap queen and BJP spokesperson.

This election there is much that binds Varanasi and Amethi, including the near certainty of the victories of Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi. But while dominant sections in Varanasi expect it to become the prime ministerial seat, in Amethi there is no such anticipation.

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