The Varanasi face-off

Published: May 9, 2014
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The writer is a consulting editor with The Statesman and writes for several newspapers in India

The writer is a consulting editor with The Statesman and writes for several newspapers in India

The big battle for Varanasi will finally reach closure on May 12 in the last phase of polling in this rather long-drawn-out election. It has become a tense fight, as late starter Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal seems to have crawled up from the back to give sufficient moments of worry to the BJP and the 40,000-odd Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks (workers campaigning through personal contact) who have flooded the city. This has been evident in the last-minute decision of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, to address a large number of meetings in the ancient city and thereby ensure that he not just wins the Lok Sabha seat, but does so with a record margin.

Varanasi was Modi’s city when the campaigning started over a month ago. His right-hand man, Amit Shah, had done a good job of consolidating the city behind Modi, with promises of religiosity, development, a new future, a good administration all being woven into one heady mix. There was a consolidation of sorts, but fortunately not a polarisation of religious communities, with all the secular parties like the Samajwadi, Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress and Communists fielding candidates as well.

Kejriwal, as per his initial promise, announced his candidature from Varanasi, but after the first roadshow he virtually disappeared. He returned, however, a month ago to camp in Varanasi and begin a serious, house-to-house, village-to-village campaign, taking care not to communalise it, but to appeal to all sections for a vote against corruption. He was attacked, his workers were taunted and beaten reportedly by BJP workers, but as this did not go down well with the dignified electorate of the city, the tactics were eventually dropped. Thousands of volunteers have moved into Varanasi to campaign for Kejriwal with students, academics, young professionals taking a month off in what they all believe will be a ‘fight for India.’

The BJP that had taken Varanasi as a cakewalk for Modi, has started feeling the heat. In fact, several of them are campaigning in the city today who insist that Kejriwal could even win this election. While this does appear to be in the realm of wishful thinking at the moment, it is apparent that he is on the rise and the final election will be fought between him and the BJP. But the general impression is that he has gained ground substantially and is getting considerable support in the rural areas where the BJP does not have a strong foothold.

As a counter to this, Modi decided to carpet-bomb Varanasi with roadshows and public meetings on one single day. The Varanasi district magistrate and the election commission, however, took the view that one particular public meeting could be a security risk and did not give permission. Thousands of BJP workers, many from outside Varanasi, took to the streets with the residents of Varanasi going indoors for fear of violence. The election commission, a constitutional body, was attacked by Modi and top BJP leaders to the point where the chief election commissioner came out in a press conference to make it clear that the autonomous institution was acting in accordance with the law and would continue to do so regardless of the attack on it.

The face-off, loud and aggressive insofar as the BJP was concerned, was a sad comment on the politician per se. The electoral body has carried out a mammoth task of conducting the Indian elections peacefully, has allowed over 3,000 public meetings across the country and has ensured that despite the palpable tension underlying this parliamentary election, there has been no violence or serious disruption of peace. All other political parties in the fray in Varanasi, in fact, complimented the election commission for its decision and for ensuring that no risks were taken at this crucial juncture.

May 12 will seal the ballot boxes and the fate of the high-profile candidates from Varanasi. Modi is contesting from two constituencies, including Vadodara in Gujarat from where he will win by a high margin undoubtedly. Kejriwal is contesting only from Varanasi. The scales still weigh in favour of Modi, but then elections in India are always unpredictable and it is not unknown for the tortoise to spring a surprise when the hare is least expecting it.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • gp65
    May 10, 2014 - 12:14AM

    “He was attacked, his workers were taunted and beaten reportedly by BJP workers, ”

    Is there any credible refrence to this other than Kejriwal making unsubstantiated comments yet again? Why would the police that reports to SP – who is a staunch opponent of BJP spare the BJP people if they were involved in violence in Vranasi – which SP rules?

    “The electoral body has carried out a mammoth task of conducting the Indian elections peacefully, has allowed over 3,000 public meetings across the country and has ensured that despite the palpable tension underlying this parliamentary election, there has been no violence or serious disruption of peace. ”

    Yes and it deserves kudos for that. Its response when it thought Modi had violated code of conduct and when Rahul clearly has – has been quite different leading to reasonable grounds for allegations of bias. Further Pranjal Yadav, the District Magistrate in question who denied permission for Modi’s meeting in his own constituency at the last moment after intially granting it happens to be married into Mulayam Singh Yadav – the SP supremo’s family and so not as neutral as one would hope. The idea that it is safe to campaign in Naxal affected areas but not in Varanasi where Modi is a candidate does not pass the smell test of fair and neutral. Seeking remedies from EC within the constitutional parameters ahead of time is absolutely fine. When that does not happen you land in situations such as the one that Pakistan is where rightly or wrongly PTI feels it has been robbed and even a year after the election, there are protests being planned.

    “But the general impression is that he has gained ground substantially and is getting considerable support in the rural areas where the BJP does not have a strong foothold.”

    You wish. We will find out when the results are but many people in the UP villages go to Gujarat for jobs and are familiar with the strides Gujarat has made – especially in the areas of bijli sadak pani.

    “The BJP that had taken Varanasi as a cakewalk for Modi, has started feeling the heat.”

    Perhaps so. If Kejriwal is challenging Modi and raising good questions, it will help the polity. You forgot however to mention how Rahul is feeling the heat (though he too probably wil win) and for the first time actually showed up on the polling day. Unlike Modi and his team who have not done anything outside EC guidelines, Rahul showed up in several polling booths – which was clearly against EC’s guidelines.Recommend

  • Strategic Asset
    May 10, 2014 - 12:26AM

    And nothing about Amethi where the befuddled Rahul Gandhi notwithstanding his Indira Gandhi-lookalike sister in never-before worn starched-linen saris is facing the battle of his lifetime?

    Kejriwal is a joke. People are wondering if he ever manages to win this one, whether he will quit as soon as assembly elections are declared in Delhi.

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  • meghnad
    May 10, 2014 - 12:57AM

    if election commition is not biased then why it now regrets ?

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  • RS
    May 10, 2014 - 1:46AM

    How intellectually dishonest one has to be to write like this!

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  • Deepwater
    May 10, 2014 - 2:32AM

    The 16th is just around the corner which is just as well since Madam Secular is running out of straws to grasp at.

    If Modi loses to Kejriwal as the Madam hopes, I will change my handle to Suleman Mustafa.
    And no, criticizing the decision (aka “attacking”) of a constitutional body like the EC is perfectly within the rights of a political party.

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  • rahul saini
    May 10, 2014 - 2:47AM

    long live the Aam admi party. Would be interesting to see this match

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  • gp65
    May 10, 2014 - 3:36AM

    There is a reason BJP thought the district magistrate was unfair. Here is a story in Economic times from which I am quiting few key facts. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/narendra-modi-denied-permission-to-hold-varanasi-rally-was-ec-justified-in-standing-by-dm/articleshow/34847642.cms

    1. On the evening of May 5, when the BJP asked for permission for Modi to address a public meeting in Benia Bagh in Varanasi, his only campaign speech in the urban segment of the constituency, the DM verbally agreed. It was decided a formal application and the deposit for the ground would be submitted the following morning. This was duly done at 7.30 am on May 6.

    2. At 2.00 pm on May 6, the district magistrate informed the BJP that Benia Bagh could not be allotted for the Modi meeting as one “Mr Khan” had booked it in the interim on behalf of his NGO. Apparently, he wanted to unfurl the national flag. Subsequently, other district officials confirmed to BJP functionaries that Mr Khan’s application had been backdated and that the DM had exempted him from paying the deposit.

    3. When confronted, the DM cancelled Mr Khan’s allotment and instead told the BJP he had received a report from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in Delhi warning of a security threat. Arun Jaitley, senior leader of the BJP, contacted the IB and was categorically told by the top leadership of the Bureau that no such special warning had been issued.

    Further the promptness with which EC asked for FIR to be filed against Modi without first verifying facts and the lackadaisical manner in which it is reacting about Rahul visting polling booths shows that it is not unbiased.Recommend

  • Ranbir
    May 10, 2014 - 7:58AM

    Was just doing a google search about my city Varanasi and its quite funny to see a pakistani newspaper declaring that people from Varanasi went inside homes because of fear.,well guess wat..i wasn’t inside home..i am one of those who likes modi and Kejriwal equally..and the picture of elections you have painted is far from reality…Recommend

  • Who
    May 10, 2014 - 8:10AM

    @meghnad:
    Regret was only to the extent that one of the EC-members (Mr.Brahma) felt that EC should have informed BJP of decisions within 4-5 hours instead of 6-7 hours. BJP’s demand of sacking/removal of DM was not accepted despite Arun Jaitley crudely calling the District Magistrate a “Delinquent”. Jaitley the extremely arrogant but ignorant lawyer does not know that the most important warning on security came from Modi’s Very Own Encounter Specialists-the Gujarat Police.

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  • zoro
    May 10, 2014 - 9:53AM

    Modi is ringing bells all over India … and in Pakistan too ??? and that too with so called “Pakistani Intellectuals” … something must be right with Modi for sure ….

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  • Gratgy
    May 10, 2014 - 11:03AM

    He was attacked, his workers were taunted and beaten reportedly by BJP workers, but as this did not go down well with the dignified electorate of the city, the tactics were eventually dropped.

    The people slapping Kejriwal usually turn out to be his own party members. You have to admit, raising funds by getting yourself slapped by your own party people is quite novel

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  • Gratgy
    May 10, 2014 - 11:05AM

    In 1971 even when Pakistan was losing the war badly, the Pakistani press was reporting grand victories. This seems like a rerun of those times

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  • Lalit
    May 10, 2014 - 11:06AM

    next action by EC: Narendra Modi ordered to be confined to a house for security reasons…Recommend

  • Feroz
    May 10, 2014 - 2:48PM

    To be a good political Journalist one should be able to differentiate between a paid crowd and a genuine upsurge in public support. People may or may not like Modi but anyone who has seen a single clip of any rally will understand that these are no manufactured crowds but a genuine upsurge. In Varanasi, AAP and Congress are merely fighting to save their deposits.

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  • Gp65
    May 10, 2014 - 3:16PM

    @zoro:
    Seema Mustafa is Indian.

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  • Hafiz
    May 10, 2014 - 6:22PM

    if Modi would not have in india then how these journalists survive their live.

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  • May 10, 2014 - 7:48PM

    @gp65:
    E T is a pro Indian newspaper. It allows fraudulent comments. With fake statics by Indian trolls.
    While it censures any legitimate rebuttals. That are posted.

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  • Gp65
    May 10, 2014 - 11:30PM

    ET mods- someone has written to me and accused me and other Indians of trolling. Pls. Allow rebuttal.

    @Landhiwala:
    The Indian author has one viewpoint. I and many other Indians disagree with her. Clearly ET is printing what this author says as well as those that disagree with her. How does this support your conclusion that ET is pro-India? In any case the topic on hand is BJP and Indian election. If on one hand ET allows pro- BJP Indians to express their opinions then it also has been printing anti-BJP and anti-Modi OpEds and blogs. So again – difficult to substantiate your theory of ‘pro-India bias. In any case when it comes to the matter of India’s election, then it is India’s internal matter and any discussion of Indian elections – even if they are pro- India (in your judgment) does not amount to being anti-Pakistan. So unclear what your concern is.

    Besides most people who have expressed their opinions have done so by either questioning facts or logic of the author. By no stretch of imagination can that be considered trolling.

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  • Sobriquet
    May 11, 2014 - 1:38PM

    @Strategic Asset:
    Starched-linen sarees? Linen is a voluminous material, so a linen saree will make the wearer loook like a fluffed-up chicken. India is a cotton country and linen, which is made from flax fibres, is not used for sarees. To call cotton linen is a misnomer.

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  • Dev Bhagat
    May 13, 2014 - 8:37PM

    Poor Seema ! She simply is not able to accept reality. She’s been after Modi for more than a decade & has been trying to kick-up storms albeit in a spoon (not even a tea cup) ! Keep trying darling…

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