Arvind Kejriwal is travelling to Varanasi to hear what it has to say to him. Well, the narrow streets of this town do indeed have a message for Kejriwal – but it might not be one he wants to hear. “Delhi’s people gave him a job to do,” says Ramesh, who sells vegetables on the street near Dasaswamedh Ghat. “But he quit that job. Why should I give him another?”
To the rest of the country, the battle between Narendra Modi and Kejriwal in Varanasi is being sold as just that – one of the big battles of the 2014 election. On Tuesday, Kejriwal has a rally planned in the temple town. Just over a third of Varanasi constituency is urban; one would think he had a chance at least there. But, by and large, his pretensions are being met by derision here. Certainly, there’s anger against the United Progressive Alliance, and a generous smattering of the cynicism about politicians that is Kejriwal’s raison d’etre. “The government sells the country to the rich types,” grumbled one seller of maps. “I sell to foreigners because I have to. What is the sarkar’s reason?”
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But converting that dissent to votes will be impossible. The reason is simple: Kejriwal himself.
Kejriwal faces this problem across eastern UP. In fact, this should have been a target area for the AAP. In Poorvanchal and Bihar, power is respected; the ability to deal with the state shows you’re a serious player. And, by some estimates, half the AAP’s 28 winning candidates in December’s Delhi polls had origins in Poorvanchal or Bihar. As sitting MLAs, they could have fanned out across their places of origin, explaining the party’s plans — with the aura that here hangs about those who can deliver on their promises. That opportunity has been lost. In Salempur district, one voter who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the AAP said “those who run away from the battlefield do not win”. Elsewhere, near Gorakhpur, an angry young man riding a Bullet said: “power is no small thing”, meaning that there was little respect for someone who just abandoned it. From many of his potential voters in Varanasi there was, simply, derisive laughter.
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It is difficult to see how Modi could lose this seat. In fact, it seems a tactical error to admit even to the possibility, by standing from Vadodara as well. That was, in fact, pretty much the only objection that many of those I spoke to had about Modi – the fear that he, too, would run away. There was no resentment whatsoever at the transferring away of Murli Manohar Joshi. Kailash Agarwal, a clothes merchant on one of the city’s main roads, says Joshi would unquestionably have lost had he contested again.
In fact, Varanasi should be Modi country, nobody else’s. The streets teem with unemployed young men. The roads are jammed solid – the place is an urban nightmare. A group of young men jammed into a little alcove under a temple, passing around a packet of biscuits, agreed. “Look at this place,” said one angrily. He nodded at some passing tourists, and explained: “It is world-famous now for dirt.” Another, who had left school but was “not ready” for college said: “It needs someone who can take decisions, and isn’t bought off.” And, there’s the religious polarisation; Muslims in traditional, conservative dress are visible everywhere, and the ghettoisation is equally obvious. The Alamgir Masjid, Aurangzeb’s contribution to Varanasi’s riverbank, soars over the Ghats, a reminder that Varanasi is not a solely Hindu city. Muslims are 15.9 per cent of Varanasi – more than, for example, Azamgarh. When that’s combined with the caste composition of the constituency, and the relative strength of the local parties, Modi should win comfortably. Kejriwal’s challenge is unlikely to even cause him to change his schedule. The only person it will embarrass, likely, is Kejriwal.
But there is bad news for Modi, too. Any hope his party had that his candidature from Varanasi would cause a wave across Poorvanchal is unlikely to materialise. In Mirzapur, next door to Varanasi, the BJP is not even in the hunt; that is the case, too, with several of the constituencies to Varanasi’s north. Even in Varanasi, Modi’s challenge will come not from Kejriwal but from the city. In the last election, Mukhtar Ansari, the local specimen of the gangster-politician species, ran a tough challenge to Joshi. He continues to have considerable support in the town; so do some of the Congress’ possible nominees. This time, too, tacit co-operation between him, the Congress and the SP could easily cause Modi to lose. Varanasi may be one of those constituencies to watch – but not because of Kejriwal. It’s because it represents, in a microcosm, the real challenge to the Modi narrative: The persistence of local-level factors, the possibility of tactical voting and unspoken alliances.