Varanasi, May 9: There is a chase on in town that Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) isn’t giving up on; it’s making the BJP turn on the final lap to sense the gap closing on its hackles. The Varanasi race has an established leader in Narendra Modi but he may be sweating a little with Kejriwal snapping at his heels, not letting him run away with it unchallenged.
For the record, Team Modi isn’t willing to pay Kejriwal any more attention than to dismiss him out of hand. But for the record Kejriwal is already boasting victory. The truth about Varanasi is not being stated on the record; the truth is that its voter isn’t as one-sided as many would have you believe. It’s a tango of two — one attempting sublime triumph, the other trying to trip it.
“Modiji hi jeetenge, par lead kam kar dee hai Kejriwal ne,” foresaged a saffron-capped bystander on Godhaulia Chowk in midtown Varanasi this afternoon, “Maamla ektarfa nahin hai.” (Modi alone will be the victor but Kejriwal is cutting into his lead, it’s not all one way.)
He was awaiting the arrival of the AAP roadshow — “dekhte hain kaisa hai... let’s see how it turns out” — with a bunch of mates, sipping lassi in the blistering sun.
A few kilometres up the road, on Lanka square, a fanfare of white flags had begun to assume shape. This would never be the size of the saffron sea that left central Varanasi deluged yesterday, but by the time Kejriwal arrived to assume its lead it had turned into a riptide accosting attention. It was a trademark AAP outing — shrill, exuberant, heady on its sense of purpose, an orchestra conducted on the bristle-tips of a thousand “jhaadus”. It curled along town, announcing to it the arrival of a contender to Narendra Modi.
“Wait till May 16 and Varanasi will give you a huge surprise,” local AAP activist Manish Mahant, cried aloud, “Tell everyone there is a huge battle on, Varanasi is not merely what exists between its ghats, it has rural pockets, it has Muslim mohallas, it has huge numbers of the poor and the forsaken who have now imposed their hope in us.”
Told that his self-belief may be more minnow’s pride less the ground reality, Manish pulled out his mobile and buffered a short video clip. It showed BJP activists tearing into an AAP campaign van, beating up the driver, ripping the vinyl posters on its sides. “This happened yesterday, in the centre of town, if the BJP is winning hands down, why resort to this? They are nervous, we have made them edgy.”
At the AAP headquarters in Mehmoorganj, where the activity is frenetic, we run into former The Telegraph journalist and AAP candidate from Kochi, now arrived to join the Kejriwal campaign. “It’s the sheer energy of this enterprise is amazing,” she gushes, “this feels like the 1977 Janata movement to me when I was in college, it’s just that we have generated so much new hope in a cynical population. Win or lose, we have arrived centrestage, we are in this contest, and how!”
It isn’t a fly claim that the AAP has travelled deep and wide in Varanasi in a short time. Earlier this afternoon, we went roaming a rural patch of the constituency along Rohaniya where Modi addressed a rally yesterday. We saw a new constituency sprung for India’s youngest political party. “They are different, they are like us, they say things we want to talk about,” Gulab Chand Patel, a metal worker, told us, “This is probably the cleanest set of people in politics, why will they not appeal to common people?”
A Kurmi, Patel admitted to being a member of Apna Dal, a caste formation that has now allied itself to the BJP. “But the Apna Dal sold out, I am a Patel, they are Chatels (bribe takers), they have no right to barter away my vote, I will vote Kejriwal.”
Gulab Chand’s invective drew immediate response from another Kurmi, seated not far at a paan vend. “Keep your loyalties to yourself but don’t call me names for keeping mine, I am with Apna Dal and therefore with the BJP.”
Seated beside him, a BJP cap on his head, Ramashankar Rajbhar smiled. “It is true the Kurmi vote is divided, a lot of it is going the AAP way, here in the villages it’s a 50-50 battle, but let me tell you, Narendra Modi will eventually win.” The Kurmi vote is over two lakh in Varanasi and fissures in it have propelled AAP hopes.
Their bet to bank on, though, remain this city’s Muslim voters, nearly four lakh in number and able to boost the AAP kitty. How the arrival of Modi has left them huddled at one end of a polarised city is a worrying tale that has just begun to unfold. What they will do to negotiate a way out of it is something they are yet pondering.
That Varanasi’s Muslims won’t vote Modi is a declaration made upfront. The rest they are keeping close to their chests, they are equivocating between Kejriwal and Ajay Rai of the Congress.
“We cannot support Narendra Modi, that is clear,” says Varanasi’s chief cleric, Mufti Noamani, “We will have to assess who stands the better chance of beating him.” But who they will pick to back is a fast unravelling enigma.
The more aggressive AAP gets, the more it inclines the minorities towards itself. In fact, part of the “we-are-winning” buzz coming off the AAP mills is a meditated tactic to debunk the Congress and project itself as Modi’s chief challenger.
The more effectively they are able to signal their winnability, the thinking in AAP circles goes, the more robustly they will mop up the anti-Modi vote, not merely among the minorities but in other precincts as well.
Their worst fear is not that the Modi core vote will turn out unitedly on May 12, but that the Muslim vote will turn out scattered on choice. That will make the difference between a Modi landslide in Varanasi and a humdinger dare by Kejriwal.