Varanasi, May 10: The centrepiece of Campaign 2014 has come and closed on the city many believe to be the centre of the earth.
What a churning crescendo it has been to India’s longest, most watched, most extravagant and probably most bitter run for power.
Thrice over the last three days Kashi has been left awash with contending tides of varied hues. On Thursday, the saffron swathe whose radiance was the irate Narendra Modi, offended at having been denied permission for a show at Benia Bagh, resolute on rejecting all other campaign opportunities on his only real outing in the constituency.
On Friday, the rippling riposte of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party; the heart of Kashi turned into vibrant frill of white caps and flags, a pulsing challenge to the frontrunner that many had not thought possible.
This morning, almost against the run of play, almost as if by some conjuror’s trick, erupted a tricolour torrent of the Congress at whose foaming head was Rahul Gandhi, on his last effort in his debut election as UPA figurehead.
As if the febrile crossing of three armies through town wasn’t enough, the ruling Samajwadi Party redcaps tailed into the Congress show mid-afternoon as if wanting to grab part of another’s thunder.
So conspicuously absent has the Congress been from the street these final days of the campaign, this morning’s onrush took many by surprise, silent Congress supporters included. Said Iqbal Ahmed, a hotel housekeeper: “My family has never voted any party other than the Congress, but this time their low spirits had left us in a quandary. This show proves they have some fight left in them, I am in confusion no more.”
Should you wish to believe Congress poll managers, today’s show was a thing of careful, if also quiet, crafting. Its chief architect: one of the high command’s most trusted backroom foremen, Ghulam Nabi Azad. He has been camped in a five-star facility several days now, consulting, confabulating, deploying men, material, resources. “We had but one basic instruction,” confided a local Congress fixer, “The show must be a show to watch.”
Azad wasn’t taking any chances with Rahul’s first appearance against Modi, his last on Campaign 2014. “Our focus had been entirely on this event,” the party fixer said. “Instructions were issued to ensure each Congress supporter was out there on the street, behind Rahul. Failure was not a thing to contemplate, this had to be done any which way.”
The Congress retains a core base of the faithful in Varanasi, however eroded and dispirited; that was coaxed into showing up.
The route was carefully chalked, beginning in the Muslim-majority neighbourhood of Golgadda, and weaving along most minority precincts on its 10-kilometre way to the BHU gates at Lanka: Pili Kothi, Kabeer Chaura, Nai Sadak, Dal Mandi, Madanpura, Shivala.
Residences with overhanging balconies along the route had been earmarked and tasked with showering rose petals as Rahul passed; Bismillah Khan’s heirs had been persuaded to play the “ram dhun” on shehnai; word had been slipped out to youngsters, actors Nagma and Raj Babbar will be at the back of Rahul’s truck.
The early-start procession had been mandated by the Election Commission to close at noon for chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was to follow in its wake. It flowed slow and full as a river; it was banked all along by columns of onlookers, waving, cheering, clapping Rahul on.
Closer to his truck, SPG guards struggled to keep off those leaping for a touch of the Congress vice-president. “Aaya tou, lekin see se aaya,” someone said wistfully in the streetside jostle at Pili Kothi. (He came but he came late.)
As it wove along, gaining girth, the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, watching its progress from the party war-room, turned to take another swipe at the EC. “This procession is moving exactly through areas where we had been denied permission,” he said sardonically. “The EC will have to live with the reality that the BJP is the only party not to have been allowed into the Benia Bagh area.”
But indignant as they remain towards the EC, the BJP may have had cause to afford a private smile at the high-voltage turn of the Congress.
It remains moot how much this eleventh-hour effort by Rahul can do to lift the Congress into contention. But should today’s show trigger some enthusiasm about the Congress in Varanasi, the Muslim vote will end up getting divided between the Congress and the AAP. Those crunching Modi’s lead margins will sense a thrill. The anti-Modi camps in Varanasi — the AAP and the Congress in the main — are depending dearly on endorsement from minority pockets and a divide in that vote will buoy Modi higher.
It’s a prospect Varanasi’s Muslims are unwilling yet to enlighten anyone on, though it was evident until yesterday AAP had emerged as their favoured choice.
Has today’s Rahul run changed any of that? The Congress is cock-a-hoop it has. “Just watch the Congress surge after this,” said one key insider who would not be named. “Yes, the campaign is over, but the voting is not. Over the next two days that people will make up their minds, and they will remember what Rahul was able to achieve today.”
The AAP campaignista quarrel vociferously with that claim. “We have been the clear challengers in this election, we may have even won it, that’s why the minorities are backing us, if anyone can defeat Modi it is us,” said Raj Kiran, a Bangalore-based techie who took leave to volunteer for Kejriwal. “We have worked terribly hard, our overwhelming presence is for nobody to deny, one rally does not an election victory make.”
As the fireball sun scorched Campaign 2014 to an end, such tug ’ war between Varanasi rivals could only have pleased the man this election has been about: Narendra Modi.