Op-ed: In Narendra Modi vs Arvind Kejriwal, will Varanasi see a big fight?

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

What is the significance of Narendra Modi contesting the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi? How strong will Arvind Kejriwal's challenge be to the BJP's prime ministerial candidate - if the Aam Aadmi Party leader does actually stand against Modi? In the first place, is Varanasi a safe or a marginal seat for the BJP?

In 2009, Varanasi was certainly not seen as a sure-thing for the BJP. Murli Manohar Joshi won by just about 17,000 votes, scraping through following heavy voting in Hindu middle-class areas in the second half of polling day. This was later described as a "Hindu consolidation" and was indeed a small-scale rendition of that phenomenon. It was triggered by the fact that there had been a sizeable turnout in Muslim areas in the morning. In turn, this led to concern that Mukhtar Ansari, the BSP candidate, would win.

Ansari is an infamous man, with a long criminal record. Backed by Mayawati, who had transferred the BSP's Dalit vote to him, he had emerged as a formidable candidate in 2009. If Mayawati had chosen a more wholesome and reputable Muslim nominee, then it is possible Joshi would have been defeated. As such, the "Hindu consolidation" was entirely contextual and driven by anxiety over Ansari being elected.

In 2014, Varanasi is safer for the BJP than it was in 2009. It should be safe for Modi and it would probably have been safe for Joshi or any other BJP candidate as well. The reason for this is, unlike 2009, there is an overall, pan-Uttar Pradesh increment in support for the BJP. This is occurring due to many reasons. Unlike 2009, the upper caste and urban shift towards the BJP is apparent. A consolidation of some OBC sub-communities and of youth voters across castes and identity groups is also noticeable. Above all, there is the Modi factor, which was simply absent in 2009.

So has Modi chosen a safe seat in Varanasi? Yes, he has; but he has also chosen a seat that his very presence in UP, as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, has rendered safe. Remove Modi from the equation and how safe does Varanasi seem? In the absence of a Modi prime ministerial candidature, could even Joshi guarantee a second victory in Varanasi?

The choice of Varanasi was not motivated simply by its symbolic value as the world's oldest living city and a constant of Hinduism. To be fair, from Allahabad (geographically not too distant from Varanasi) to Meerut, there are other constituencies in Uttar Pradesh that could have attracted Modi for heritage/historical reasons as well as for immediate political return.

In opting for Varanasi, Modi hopes his candidature will influence about 25-30 seats in the catchment area, extending from eastern Uttar Pradesh to Bihar. In eastern UP - or Poorvanchal as it is called - the BJP's biggest potential obstacle is a replica of the coalition Joshi faced in 2009: a Muslim-Dalit consolidation behind the BSP. Such a social alliance would be numerically impressive. It could become the BJP's number one headache in UP. Modi's arrival as a local candidate is calculated to craft a counter-narrative, not just in Varanasi but more so in neighbouring districts.

Where does all this place Kejriwal? He has a tough task ahead. If he taps into the Muslim vote and hurts the BSP, he will only end up benefiting Modi. If he canvasses hard among Varanasi's urban middle classes, what will his pitch be? These are voters who are hostile to the Samajwadi Party government in Lucknow and tired of the Congress in New Delhi. An AAP campaign that targets Modi's "Gujarat model" would probably be lost on them.

However, what Kejriwal can be ensured of is blockbuster media coverage. He will probably give the best interviews; Modi will probably win the election.

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