Varanasi, the new battleground
All eyes are focused on Varanasi after BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, 63-year-old Narendra Modi, decided to contest election from the holy city. And now, Modi faces a new challenge in form of the indefatigable Arvind Kejriwal. The Aam Aadmi Party convener has already raised the pitch by relentlessly attacking the ‘Modi model’. With emergence of Kejriwal as a candidate from Varanasi, the holy city is bound to witness a David versus Goliath battle.
BJP leaders still do not take the AAP leader seriously and dismiss him of no consequence, but judging by Kejriwal’s rising graph of popularity, he may give a run for life to Gujarat chief minister. According to talk in political circles, the opposition parties, have been toying with the idea of supporting the AAP supremo with a view to defeating Modi. Doubtless, if Modi wins his stocks will go up like a meteor and his claim for prime minister’s office will only be strengthened. However, in the event of losing, Modi will not only forfeit the right to the country’s highest executive post but his credibility will come down sharply.
Congress is still undecided about putting up a candidate in Varanasi. There is talk in Congress circles of putting up Anil Shastri, the late Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s son, to oppose Modi and also, at the same time, appeal to opposition parties to extend support to him. Anil had won Varanasi seat in 1991 and is a son of soil; Shastriji belonged to Varanasi, having been born and brought up in the holy city. If Anil is fielded from Varanasi, the resentment of locals that an outsider is imposed on them, could be neutralised.
Many local leaders in the ancient city have resented Modi because he is a rank outsider. Their experience in the past has been that outsiders win election from Varanasi and then conveniently forget the people as he has no stake in them. Locals feels that Modi may do the same because his preference is bound to be his home state and he may quit Varanasi to retain Vadadora from where he is seeking election to Lok Sabha.
Why Modi decided to contest from Varanasi when he was sure to get elected from Gujarat? Perhaps, he thought that having a foothold in UP, may help the BJP to win more seats from the most populous state of the union. Also his run for election in the holy city may galvanise support among Hindus. It will brush up his Hindu credentials and also focus his campaign on a key swing area.
There’s yet another reason for Modi’s candidature from Varanasi. The party would be hoping that the so-called Modi-wave created here will permeate to eastern Uttar Pradesh and southern Bihar, the Poorvanchal region, where it finds itself weaker than in other regions of UP.
The coming of Modi has placed the BJP once again in top league, and indeed opinion polls uniformly suggest a UP seat tally for the party in the region of 35 to 40 – a remarkable potential upswing in fortunes for a party seemingly without hope recently. Just because of sheer size of UP, the BJP as well as other parties have placed the state at the centre-stage of their election calculation.
For the BJP especially, UP has been a high-stakes state with its overall electoral fortune tied to its seat tally from here. The party held sway over UP right through the heady Ram Mandir phase, winning 50 plus seats from the state in the general elections of 1991, 1996 and 1998.
The party’s electoral graph soared in tandem with its performance in UP and in 1998, it formed a coalition government at the centre on the back on of an incredible tally of 57 seats from the state. The BJP’s remarkable run ended in 1999 elections, with the party’s tally from UP plunging to a low of 29. It helps Modi that he arrived at a time of deep despair with the incumbent UPA government. The UPA’s 10-year incumbency and policy paralysis and corruption witnessed during the second term appear to have combined to push Modi to the forefront in this election.
A galaxy of leaders had represented Varanasi in the Lok Sabha. Besides, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s second Prime Minister, Dr. Sampurnand, named philosopher-king, an astrologer, who UP’s chief minister, hailed from the holy city.
The freedom fighter, Kamlapati Tripathi, once UP’s chief minister and later Railway Minister in Indira Gandhi cabinet also belonged to Varanasi. Many BJP leaders too were elected from the ancient city, latest of the BJP leader elected from Varanasi was Murli Manohar Joshi, who was unwilling to be shifted Kanpur to make way for Narendra Modi, but eventually fell in line.
Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Three thousand old Varanasi was an ancient centre of learning, arts, literature and culture. IPA