Varanasi’s magnified importance this election season obviously stems from the presence in the fray of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. In the event, the arrival of Arvind Kejriwal as Narendra Modi’s challenger has added plenty of drama and excitement to a contest increasingly projected as one between David and Goliath. In theory, and possibly in actuality too, Mr. Modi has all but won the election. Mr. Modi comes into the battle backed not just by the BJP, in itself a party of considerable means, but additionally by the formidable campaign machinery of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr. Kejriwal, on the other hand, is the proverbial little man with no resources bar his spunk and daring. In the Delhi Assembly election, too, the Aam Aadmi Party had made its financial bankruptcy its USP, deliberately placing itself as the underdog pitted in an unequal race with the Big Two, the Congress and the BJP. However, unlike at that time, today the AAP chief carries the baggage of having hurriedly dumped the first-ever government he formed in Delhi, thus betraying his pre-poll promise to usher in systemic reform. Indeed, the BJP’s narrative, bought into by a large enough section of voters, is that Mr. Kejriwal ran away from responsibility and therefore does not deserve a second chance.
Curiously, the counter-view that Mr. Kejriwal sacrificed his chief ministership to uphold a principle, has takers as well, and this group appears to be made up largely of people on the margins — Muslims, sections of Dalits and the economically poor. What makes this election riveting is the seeming clash between the larger picture, which is of Mr. Modi winning the seat on the back of a phenomenal wave all across Uttar Pradesh, and the smaller, fragmented stories featuring underclass resistance. Mr. Kejriwal’s strategy is obviously to motivate the alienated sections into understanding the power of their numbers so as to consolidate themselves as a force against Mr. Modi. However, this is easier said than accomplished given the potential of other contestants to queer the pitch. Rival parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will be loath to fielding weak candidates against Mr. Modi, lest that seem like handing him a walkover. The Muslim community may be divided by the likely candidature of a powerful local leader, Mukhtar Ansari of the Quami Ekta Dal. The Varanasi competition is also skewed in favour of Mr. Modi by the AAP’s logistical constraints in fighting a Lok Sabha election, which involves money, manpower and booth management skills. Mr. Modi’s biggest strength, of course, is the perception that he is the man of the moment, the leader on the cusp of power.