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Minorities feel whitecaps are their best bet

Varanasi, May 9: At Arvind Kejriwal’s roadshow through Varanasi’s religious and commercial hubs, Lanka and Gaudoliya, the exuberance is palpable — in the exchange of hugs and bonhomie among the participants, in the smiles that light up faces and in the drumbeats that prompt young men to break into dance.

The supporters wear white Aam Aadmi Party caps, hold up its banner and carry its symbolic broom. They are polite to passers-by, including those in BJP’s saffron caps bearing Narendra Modi’s face. Most are Muslim.

The community’s decision-makers are agreed that they must vote for Kejriwal to contain, if not defeat, Modi in Varanasi. No announcement has been made but the consensus is that they shouldn’t waste their votes on the other “secular” contenders — the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Shoaib Khan, a city businessman who belongs to a family of Congress loyalists, said: “We seriously looked at Kejriwal after his debut in the Delhi elections and wondered if he would ever emerge as an alternative for the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh. Before he announced his candidacy, he called a meeting of the city’s smaller clerics and the sardars at Benia Bagh and sought their views on whether he should fight against Modi. The answer was a yes.”

In Varanasi’s layered politics dotted with unlikely power centres, the Muslim sardars traditionally call the shots in politics much more than the moulvis (clerics). A sardar’s writ runs over a group of mohallas (neighbourhoods) — anything between 14 and 42.

Bilal Ahmed, a sari weaver and a new AAP convert, said over the past three days the sardars met family heads in the mohallas they control, ran through the options before Muslims and decided that the AAP was the best bet.

“The sardars were clear that Muslim votes must not be split like we heard they were in other parts. People did raise questions about how Kejriwal suddenly resigned as (Delhi) chief minister and came across as irresponsible. The sardars listed all the good things he did in the 49 days he was chief minister. Above all, they emphasised that he was a person of integrity, so he should be given a chance. People were persuaded. At the end of the sessions, only 10 per cent said they would vote for the Congress and another five, the Samajwadi Party,” said Bilal, 26, who comes from a family of Samajwadis.

What tipped the scales against the Congress was the “negative” perception of its candidate, Ajay Rai, who began as a BJP member before switching to the Samajwadi Party and then to the Congress in 2014.

M.M. Siddiqui, a schoolteacher, said of Ajay Rai: “If he was in the BJP, he must be ideologically close to the RSS.”

Samajwadi vice-president Nasir Jamal, who dropped by to check the AAP roadshow, said: “Ajay Rai’s stock went down the day the Bhumihars revolted against him in protest of the support he took from Mukhtar Ansari.”

Mukhtar Ansari, a former BSP member who is now with the Qaumi Ekta Dal, was charged with the killing of Ajay Rai’s relative, Krishnand Rai, some years ago. Krishnand’s wife Alka is campaigning against Ajay Rai for the BJP.

Jamal said: “Ajay Rai has no base vote left.”

Shoaib Khan claimed that Kejriwal also had “10 to 15 per cent” of the Dalit votes and those of Varanasi’s Hindu liberals, an amorphous grouping.

The Congress belatedly woke up to the shifting Muslim votes and marshalled the services of its best-known faces from the community, Salman Khurshid, K. Rahman Khan, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mohsina Kidwai, to work on the sardars. “But it’s too late,” admitted a Congress worker from western Uttar Pradesh. “Muslims have deserted us, all because of Ajay Rai who was mistakenly extolled by our Delhi leaders as a “Dabang” (fearless) who could take on Modi. He can’t wash away the RSS stigma,” the woman worker from Bijnore said.

Varanasi votes on May 12