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

With India’s general election around the corner, political observers are wondering which constituency Prime Minister Narendra Modi will run in. If he chooses to again contest from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, which opposition candidate will be strong enough to challenge him?

Before the opposition parties or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could announce their Varanasi candidates, a young firebrand Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad, threw his hat into the ring in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India. Azad gained popularity two years ago after leading an aggressive campaign that resulted in violent clashes. He was then jailed for a year under the stringent National Security Act.

“A weaker candidate should not contest against PM Modi. I will not let the murderer of my Muslim, Dalit and other backward class brothers go to the Lok Sabha [lower house of Parliament] from Uttar Pradesh,” said Azad.

Azad, who in 2014 founded the “Bhim Army,” which works for the emancipation of Dalits (lower-caste Hindus in the Indian caste system) through education, told Asia Times, “If other parties support me, fine. Otherwise, I will contest on my own.”

Meanwhile, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, who is chief priest of Varanasi’s famous Akhara Goswami Tulsidas and Sanakatmochan Temple and head of the electronics department of Indian Institute of Technology, has also decided to take a plunge into politics. Just like Azad, Mishra hopes Congress or the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) alliance will put him on the ticket due to his unique resume, which is a blend of technology, social work, popularity, progressiveness, secularism and Hinduism. He runs a Sankatmochan foundation that has been working to clean up the River Ganga since 1982, opened Tulsidas Akhara for women wrestlers and supports several organizations.

Speaking to Asia Times exclusively, Mishra said, “The people of Varanasi want me to contest the Lok Sabha elections as Modi has failed to deliver as the prime minister and the local representative. Leaders of various communities, including Muslims and Dalits, met me over the past few weeks and extended their support. If Congress or SP supports me, well and good. If not, then I will seek nomination independently to provide a better option before the voters.”

In the state that sends the largest number of lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, these developments are an interesting twist in the upcoming general election.

Shailendra Singh, a political analyst, said, “Azad’s entry is expected to bring back the focus on real issues Uttar Pradesh grapples with at present, such as unemployment of youth, the growing influence of cow vigilantes and attacks on Dalits and Muslims and law and order. Fake patriotism will subside at least in Varanasi.”

As India gears up for its parliamentary elections slated for April-May, Modi’s BJP aims to win 315 seats out of 543 constituencies.

SK Dwivedi, a former political science professor at Lucknow University, said, “The entry of the Bhim Army in Varanasi has made this contest interesting and would be able to change the narrative to some extent. However, Azad has little influence and scope, much less than the Aam Admi chief Arvind Kejriwal who contested last time.”

The opposition

Congress considered Hardik Patel, a young anti-Modi activist from Gujarat who recently joined the party and Priyanka Gandhi, the party’s general secretary and party president Rahul Gandhi’s sister. However, party leaders decided against fielding them. Congress has so far released the candidates list for 27 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh out of 80, but Varanasi is not among them.

However, soon after Azad disclosed his poll plan on Wednesday, Priyanka Gandhi visited him at a Meerut hospital. He was admitted after reportedly falling ill following his arrest for a violation of the poll code. While Gandhi and Azad both denied there was any political motive behind the visit, observers say Congress might support Azad because there is no viable alternative.

Congress leader Virendra Madan said, “Our national leadership is working to finalize the candidates. As of now, we can’t confirm or deny whether Congress would support Bhim Army or field any other leader from Varanasi.”

According to analysts, the SP-BSP alliance may not back Azad because BSP chief Mayawati sees him as a potential threat to her own party in the long run.

Modi Varanasi bid

In 2014 polls, Modi made several promises, including a pledge to transform Varanasi into a city comparable with Kyoto in Japan. “He won his first-ever election outside Gujarat, securing 52% of the votes. Five years down the line, most of the promises remain unkept,” claims Mishra.

He adds, “The River Ganga is dirtier, many ghats have been damaged and encroached upon. On top of that, [Modi] lacks a scientific temperament, which is required to understand the river. He does not even know anything about Varanasi’s history and Hinduism.”

Varanasi has been the BJP’s bastion for last 25 years barring 2004. In the 2014 general election, the combined vote share of the SP, BSP and Congress was 17.61% against the 53% vote share secured by Modi.

According to Sharat Pradhan, a political analyst, Modi is likely to win easily due to a fractured opposition. “Had opposition parties put up a common candidate, victory would not have been as easy as it is now,” said Pradhan.

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