Why Varanasi may not be a cakewalk for Narendra Modi

Not that the Congress will win.
Not that the Congress will win.
Image: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash
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The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in Varanasi believes it is about to give India the party’s second prime minister. But as a Banarsi who has seen the political whirlwinds of Uttar Pradesh, I don’t see Varanasi as being a safe seat for Narendra Modi.

There’s no doubt that Varanasi has long been an eastern Uttar Pradesh bastion of the BJP and that of its backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Varanasi has over 1.5 million registered voters. Of this, almost a third, or roughly 400,000 are Muslims.

In the last Lok Sabha election in 2009, over 650,000 people cast their votes. The winning candidate, Murli Manohar Joshi of the BJP, won a little over 200,000 votes. Contesting on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket, Muslim strongman Mukhtar Ansari won around 185,000 votes. Local politician Ajai Rai contested from the Samajwadi Party (SP), getting over 120,000 votes. The Congress party’s Rajesh Mishra earned some 66,000 odd votes. Vijay Prakash Jaiswal, contesting on an Apna Dal ticket, got a similar 65,000 votes.

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Those numbers suggest the BJP will not not win Varanasi easily, because, simply put, Varanasi is not one of those seats where the winning margins are in hundreds of thousands.

The BJP claims there’s a Modi wave this election, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate contesting in Varanasi as well as his home state of Gujarat may have some impact on Varanasi voter’s mind, especially the young.

The BJP also benefits from anti-incumbency against the second term of the United Progressive Alliance. Another big thing going for Modi is that the BJP has tied up with Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh. The Apna Dal is a party of the Kurmis, another “backward class” peasant community.

At the same time, we’ll have to consider that Mukhtar Ansari, influential with the city’s Muslim voters, has chosen not to contest this election. He has not announced support for any party, but his absence from the race is thought to favor the Congress Party.

The votes in Varanasi going to Arvind Kejriwal would otherwise have been Modi’s. A few BJP voters may also be upset at the snub Modi gave sitting BJP MP Murli Manohar Joshi by forcing him to vacate the Varansi seat.

Had Mukhtar Ansari, a convicted politician who often contests from jail, been contesting this election, the BJP and the RSS would have been able to polarize this election on Hindu-Muslim lines and prevent Hindu voters from thinking of options other than the BJP. Ansari’s smart withdrawl from the race has taken away the potential strategy of Hindu Hero vs Muslim Villain.

There are those who say that Modi is an outsider who may choose Vadodara and resign from Varanasi if he wins both. By contrast, Ajay Rai of the Congress is a local who has been MLA for five times, including once with the BJP.

The Bahujan Samaj Party’s Vijay Prakash Jaiswal is a lightweight who will take away dalit votes, but the Samajwadi Party is said to be considering withdrawing its candidate in favour of Ajay Rai.

If you take into account the Congress’ traditional vote, the tacit or explicit support of the BSP and the SP, Ajay Rai’s popularity and the Muslim votes that Mukhtar Ansari is leaving for him, it’s clear that Modi has a very tough fight on his hands. Many have slipped on the ghats of Banaras.

This post originally appeared at Scroll.