It’s brand Narendra Modi vs Arvind Kejriwal appeal in Varanasi

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VARANASI: The holy city is in a state of confusion with too many suitors putting its social fabric under stress. People wake up every morning to a new twist in the gladiatorial fight between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal.

Samajwadi Party contestant Kailash Chaurasia is virtually inconsequential and waits for the Mulayam-Akhilesh duo to show up and turn the tide in his favour. Even then, SP’s core voters know the battle of Varanasi has been scripted without assigning any role to the ruling party, not even that of an extra.

But AAP volunteers and leaders say no battle is over till it is over. They are waiting for a surprise and each positive move is analysed threadbare. JD(U)’s decision to support Kejriwal is seen as AAP’s growing popularity.

As for Modi and Kejriwal, the city is divided over them. From elite Bhelupura homes to the serpentine lanes of Rasulpur that house weavers’ karkhanas and dwellings, everyone loves Kejriwal’s resolve, his gutsy ways but seem to know who the winner will be. Some like educationist Deepak Madhok, a leading light of the city who has taken on the administration for its creaky civic amenities, regret Kejriwal didn’t contest from a second constituency.

A senior RSS functionary finds the contest interesting but claims Modi’s campaign got over even before Kejriwal’s began. “We started last December. Now, for more than a month we’re working to ensure our supporters vote. In 2009, Murli Manohar Joshi nearly lost because of casual BJP supporters. The margin this time should be befitting a PM candidate. It is Varanasi’s duty. You don’t get PM candidates so easily,” he says.

The RSS pracharak’s confidence is astounding. Modi, he insists, is now integral to every facet of Banarsi Hindu life — its ghats, neighbourhood deities called Bir Babas, the bhajan mandalis. Work by RSS and its front organizations in creating a Hindutva brand based on a magical tale is something business schools will teach one day.

Far removed from the arrogance of BJP workers and RSS front organizations, the underdog Aam Admi Party is nimblefooted and works out its moves deftly. Its campaign motto that Modi isn’t change but merely a substitute, has won Kejriwal admirers and volunteers but not enough to set off a surge and turn him into a giant slayer.

AAP is trying everything to mobilize and dominate the city. Still, it’s not enough that thousands of volunteers have descended from all over the country to add muscle to the AAP campaign. Their style of canvassing has endeared them to all barring BJP workers who jeer at them and occasionally beat them up.

The difficulty is, as a local CPI leader says, “These volunteers don’t know the voters, the voters don’t know them. They attract attention but I doubt they can change minds.” CPI and CPI (ML) are openly campaigning for AAP hoping to convince Left’s depleted support base of 30,000-40,000 to vote for Kejriwal, not CPM that has put up a candidate.

Like elsewhere, the onus of defending secularism has been thrust upon nearly 3 lakh Muslims here who, as always, are being herded to vote en bloc. Even as Kejriwal looks set to get their support, appeal by Quami Ekta Dal (QED) chief Afzal Ansari to vote Congress threatens to cause fi ssures in the minority vote bank. The QED appeal is being questioned by Muslims themselves. Says Atiq Ansari, leader of weavers, “Muslims want to know what led to this appeal. Afzal’s brother Mukhtar Ansari is an accused in the murder of Krishnanand Rai, elder brother of Congress candidate Ajay Rai. Both Muslims and Rai’s bhumihar community won’t fall for this cynical alliance between an accused and his victim’s brother. Muslims love Kejriwal. Support for him will only grow.”

Atiq knows how Muslims have received allurements that promise to change their lives but ensure they live as a vote bank without a mind of their own. Congress has brought in big guns like Ghulam Nabi Azad and talks are on with the local clergy. Muslims are being pulled in all directions even as the city yearns to return to its normal Banarsi self that has a place for communities to live together, engage in banter and loud debate and forget the differences over lassi and bhang.

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