10:00 pm - Tuesday November 3, 2015

With JD (U) added 2.5 lakh Kurmi votes, Now AAP is almost safe in Varanasi

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In the shadow of a statue of revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad, at a busy intersection at Lahurabir, a mahila panchayat is in full swing. It is around 5 pm on Thursday, and the street play mimics the manner in which politicians of various hues make their pitch, from the musclemen to those use allurements such as alcohol. But the chief target is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who is contesting from Varanasi.

Women’s groups from across the State have gathered in Varanasi to conscientise women on the significance of their vote and to urge them to use the ballot to defeat Mr. Modi. While there is some soul searching on whether to name the candidate who people should vote for, Padma Singh, one of the organizers says, “If we don’t name one person, the votes will get divided – so we are pitching for AAP.”

As election day draws near, across Varanasi, all those who want to defeat or at least, ensure that the margin of Mr. Modi’s victory is reduced, are gradually veering towards the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal again, after a brief hiatus in which it had seemed as though the Congress’s Ajay Rai, a Bhoomihar strongman who has the backing of his one lakh strong community might pose a greater challenge, especially after the Quami Ekta Party (QED) withdrew its candidate, Mukthar Ansari, declaring it would back the Congress.

The Janata Dal-United has declared support for AAP here, and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as well as senior party leader Sharad Yadav are expected here shortly to campaign for Mr. Kejriwal.

But it’s evident that while the three-lakh strong Muslim community is working to ensure that its votes don’t get divided, there is little enthusiasm amongst its members for the Congress candidate nor has the QED’s endorsement worked.

It’s late evening in Madanpura, a Muslim -dominated locality, home to many of the city’s famous trade in Banarasi saris. “The people have seen the Congress, it has done little except increase prices; worse, its candidate is a muscleman. And we wont’ vote for Modi,” says HM Sagheer, who has a dry fruits business, “maybe we should try AAP…but we haven’t yet made up our minds.” Akram Burari who is in the Banarasi sari trade, says, “Kejriwal could pose a challenge and no, the QED’s endorsement is worthless.” Indeed, most Muslims appeared to be veering towards Mr. Kejriwal, even though they all maintained that they would wait till closer to Election Day to take a final decision.At the office of the Momin Conference that has lent its support – and precincts in Sigra – to the AAP, Sanjeev Singh, a young lawyer and AAP activist – the original party candidate – is full of enthusiasm for the Kejriwal campaign that now has 55,000 volunteers registered manually, and another 17, 000 online. “We are fighting two people who have broken the law, one on a large scale, and the other on a smaller,” Mr. Singh says, stressing that apart from its national pitch of bringing in a new kind of politics marked by integrity and concern for the common man, the party has taken up local issues – from the concerns of the weavers’ community, to opposition in one of the rural segments against a Coca Cola factory that has depleted the ground water.

The energy visible at the AAP office is missing at the Congress headquarters: though packed with workers, there is an air of lethargy. A spat breaks out between two workers here, with one accusing the other of lounging around instead of getting out into the heat and dust to campaign: the response: “I can’t leave –I’m on protocol duty, waiting to receive senior leaders from Delhi.”

In sharp contrast, even though most people here believe that Mr. Modi is a shoo-in, the BJP is taking no chances, shipping in people from across the country to its expensively appointed hi-tech office here. Former IAS officer KJ Alphons, for instance, has come from Kerala, as has Dr. Jaychandran, an Ayurvedic doctor now based in Ahmedabad – the latter describes himself as part of Mr. Modi’s core team. Their task? To mobilize the South Indian vote in the city.

If the BJP is working towards ensuring Mr. Modi wins by three lakh votes, the AAP and its growing band of well-wishers are working to close that gap. Varanasi has become more than just another VIP electoral contest – it has become the site of a battle to preserve the city’s boast of being a symbol of India’s syncretic culture.

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