Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center). Photo: Prakash SINGH / AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

As India gears up for national-level parliamentary elections early next year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has set a target of winning 315 seats out of 543 constituencies, 33 more than it secured in the 2014 polls.

As the prime minister’s constituency, Varanasi in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is the most high-profile target in the upcoming Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) elections.

Steeped in the BJP’s Hindu nationalist image, Varanasi is the world’s oldest living city and the spiritual capital of India, with thousands of temples lining the sacred river Ganga.

BJP leaders assert that Modi’s “charisma, hard work and leadership” will help him to repeat their success not only in Varanasi but across India in 2019.

Although the opposition hopes to bounce back on the “anti-incumbency” plank, it faces a giant quandary: finding a candidate who can challenge the BJP’s best bet on his home turf.

While the BJP insists Modi will be the party candidate from Varanasi again, the opposition parties have remained silent over their candidates, making voters anxious. Moreover, the possibility of a joint candidate emerging to challenge Modi from an alliance among opposition parties has yet to be discussed openly.

Actor, politician or priest?

The Indian National Congress and regional big players like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have been unable to agree on names to be put up against the PM.

Interestingly, the most suitable candidate to take on Modi could be the PM’s own party colleague Shatrughan Sinha. The actor-turned-politician who has often been openly critical of the Modi government’s more controversial policies, is believed to be the choice of the Samajwadi Party (SP). Although no formal announcement has been made, rumors started doing the rounds when he attended an SP program in Lucknow earlier this month.

One experienced observer told Asia Times: “Shatrughan, being a popular film actor in the past, has a huge fan following in Varanasi which is close to Bihar. Besides, the city has a large number of (people from the) Kayastha community, to which Sinha belongs.” [As it does in other Indian states, caste plays a crucial role in Uttar Pradesh elections.]

There are also rumours that Congress party president Rahul Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi may be pitted against Modi. But the party has dismissed the suggestion. “Priyanka hasn’t fought any elections yet while (the) PM is a seasoned politician. Why would we launch her with a sure shot defeat?” a senior Congress leader said.

Congress might also field the former lawmaker Ajay Rai, the second runner-up in 2014. “It all depends on whether we forge a grand alliance or go solo,” said the party leader.

While there is speculation that the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) might skip the anticipated grand alliance, the party is still to announce a candidate for Varanasi.

There is also a rumor of a local priest joining the fray, possibly with the backing of regional parties. If this materializes, the coming Varanasi contest could be the most interesting yet.

Political scientist Ramesh Dixit said, “Even Indira Gandhi [former Indian Prime Minister] lost the elections in 1977. Modi too can be defeated due to anti-incumbency this time, provided the opposition fields a good candidate against him.”

The opposition’s Varanasi strategy largely depends on the fate of the much-hyped opposition grand alliance led by Congress. Things will become clearer after December 11 when the results of Assembly elections come out in five states—Rajasthan, Madya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram and if Congress can bag any of the three big BJP-ruled states (Rajasthan, Madya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh).

Can Modi win with undelivered promises?

In the 2014 polls, Modi made several promises, including the one to transform the world’s oldest inhabited city into the Indian equivalent of the Japanese city of Kyoto. This won his first-ever elections outside Gujarat, securing 52% votes by defeating AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.

Four-and-a-half years down the line, most of the his promises for the country in general and Varanasi in particular remain undelivered, say his critics.

Things are no longer looking good for the saffron party. The party lost three key parliamentary by-elections in the state this year. The Modi government is also battling with a range of critical issues as the country goes to the polls—including rising unemployment, record depreciation of the rupee and exorbitant petroleum prices.

The PM’s own image is a bone of contention with the opposition Congress accusing him of nepotism in the Rafale jet purchase and surveys that say his popularity is in decline.

To make matters worse, locals claim that Varanasi has not actually changed much under Modi’s guardianship. Activist Himanshu Singh said, “Stray cattle, garbage and open drains continue to be Varanasi’s face. As a result, dengue has gripped the city this year as never before.”

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, Professor of Electronics at the Indian Institute of Technology and Banaras Hindu University, who is also the chief priest at the popular Sankatmochan temple, said, “Forget Kyoto, the city has gone from bad to worse due to haphazard development works. Drains which pour sewage (into) the river Ganges continue doing so making water quality poorer than before. The heritage temples are demolished for Vishwanath temple corridor. There is no reversal from such disasters.”

Still, Prof Mishra believes that no candidate including Sinha can defeat Modi unless the opposition chooses to field a local leader against “outsider” Modi.

Varanasi has been a BJP stronghold for almost all of the last 25 years, but people might go for a change this time due to growing frustration over the party’s poor performance, say observers. Issues like the exodus of north Indian workers from BJP-ruled Gujarat and the amendment to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Act will play a crucial role in Varanasi.

BJP spokesperson Naveen Srivastava claims, “Development in Varanasi is visible through newly constructed roads, clean ghats of the Ganga and the laying of underground cables. Projects worth Rs550 crore [US$75 million] launched last month only. UP’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath personally supervises the PM’s constituency. For development, some heritage structures have to be sacrificed. Opposition spreads misinformation but people would elect Modi ji again in 2019.”

Modi may still win

Some observers feel there was not enough time to transform a complex city like Varanasi and that Modi would win the seat again albeit with a lower margin.

Ravi Pandey, a Varanasi-based journalist, says, “A lot has been done in Varanasi since 2014. However, the civic body and many state agencies have not been up to the mark. People are angry but might end up voting for Modi due to the lack of any credible option before them.”

Roshan Jamil, the head of a weavers’ group, says “Banarasi handloom industry has lost its steam post demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax. Most weavers who used to make profits are (living) hand to mouth now. However, Varanasi has changed for the better.”

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