5:16 pm - Tuesday May 23, 1178

In Varanasi, Underground Support for Aam Aadmi Party

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From a distance, Prashant Pandey, a 30-year-old who owns a clothing store in the narrow lanes that surround Varanasi’s renowned Kashi Vishwanath temple, appeared to be a supporter of Narendra Modi, the frontrunner to be India’s next prime minister.

Mannequins standing in the display window were dressed in saffron tunics and campaign caps of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. A large cutout of a lotus flower, the party’s election symbol, adorned one wall.

But on Monday, Mr. Pandey said, he will vote for the Aam Aadmi Party, whose anti-corruption leader Arvind Kejriwal is running against Mr. Modi to represent Varanasi in Parliament.

Mr. Pandey said he had decorated his store with BJP paraphernalia because others in his neighborhood are strong supporters of Mr. Modi, a sentiment he didn’t want to openly defy.

“I don’t want to spoil relations with them,” Mr. Pandey said.

Vocal support for any party other than the BJP — and particularly for Mr. Kejriwal — would attract too much attention in Mr. Pandey’s predominantly Hindu neighborhood and could lead to an unnecessary argument, he said.

“No one is looking when I go to cast my vote,” said Mr. Pandey, revealing a folded-up white Aam Aadmi campaign hat from under a table with a conspiratorial grin. “I want to give Kejriwal a chance.”

Mr. Kejriwal and his party’s hundreds of fired-up workers have been running a rigorous door-to-door campaign in Varanasi, trying to win voters.

Volunteers walked the streets wielding the party’s symbol, a broom, and held dozens of small rallies in which they invited even strong supporters of Mr. Modi to answer tough questions. Their commitment in the face of great odds, some locals say, has endeared Mr. Kejriwal to voters – and has won him some support at the ballot box.

While even supporters of Mr. Kejriwal predict a Modi win, Mr. Modi’s fans begrudgingly admit the Aam Aadmi Party has stolen some of their thunder.

Aam Aadmi’s campaign could bring down the margin of Mr. Modi’s victory, some say, potentially embarrassing a party that has talked about an unflinching wave of support for its prime ministerial nominee.

Kanhaiyalal Tiwari, 37, who runs a small streetside paan store, says the 65 members of his extended family will vote for Mr. Kejriwal, though like in Mr. Pandey’s shop, a poster of Mr. Modi is tacked to a wall behind his shop.

Mr. Tiwari said Mr. Kejriwal’s volunteers had come to his house several times to ask for his vote. “He has managed to win many hearts in Varanasi, eventhough he is running against a stalwart of politics like Modi,” Mr. Tiwari said.

“If Kejriwal wins here, there will be a good mix of candidates in parliament,” Mr. Tiwari said, pointing out that Mr. Modi is also running from a seat in Gujarat, which he is certain to win.

Apart from a small community of closet supporters, Mr. Kejriwal also has the backing of Varanasi’s Muslims. Over the weekend, many particularly from the Sunni sect, asked themselves a question: Which candidate has even a chance of beating Mr. Modi? The answer, they said, was Arvind Kejriwal.

“Never, never, never will we vote for Modi,” said Dawood Khan, 40, who owns a small business. “If he does, Hindus and Muslims won’t be equal in Varanasi again.”

Mr. Khan said that hardline Hindus had already started “bossing around” Muslims, saying things like “now your time is up.” Mr. Khan said he had earlier planned to vote for the Congress candidate Ajay Rai, but now preferred Mr. Kejriwal because “he’s still in the fight.”

Mr. Modi’s supporters are hoping Varanasi’s Muslim vote gets split between Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, both of whom have campaigned aggressively for Muslim votes.

Standing outside a mosque after Friday prayers, Mohammad Farhan, 26, said he would spend the weekend making sure all his Muslim friends and family vote for Mr. Kejriwal.

Meanwhile, around the temple, Mr. Pandey said he too has tried to convince his family to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party, but without luck. His father would “sooner disown his son than vote for anyone but Modi,” Mr. Pandey said. His 28-year-old brother Shashank Pandey said he’s on the fence and wonders if as a first-timer, Mr. Kejriwal will be able to develop Varanasi.

“Either way,” he said, “even if Mr. Kejriwal gets the second place convincingly, that’s as good as winning.”

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