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INDIA VOTE

Varanasi – Modi is object of holy city’s affection

Cogencis, Thursday, May 16

By Sampad Nandy and Sukalp Sharma

VARANASI/NEW DELHI – One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi has been the focal point of India's religious and cultural identity for millennia. In the 2014 General Elections, after Narendra Modi decided to contest from this "holiest of holy cities", it took centre stage in the country's electoral politics as well.

Apart from being one of the two seats Modi chose for his debut in parliamentary elections–the other being Vadodara from his home state of Gujarat–Varanasi also grabbed eyeballs as it turned into a stage for a high-profile battle with Aam Aadmi Party National Convener Arvind Kejriwal deciding to run against him.

Modi eventually won Varanasi by a landslide, and his party swept Uttar Pradesh and much of the Hindi heartland, riding on what was later dubbed the "Modi wave".

Five years on, Modi appears to be far more self-assured in Varanasi and has opted not to contest from a second "safe" seat, while the opposition appears to have discarded any real hope of wresting the constituency from the Prime Minister.

There was some talk of the Congress mulling to field Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to take on Modi, but the grand old party ended up fielding Ajay Rai instead. Perhaps for the Congress, Varanasi seemed too challenging a constituency for Priyanka's electoral debut.

The Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance, or the 'Mahagathbandhan', had initially fielded Shalini Yadav as its candidate, but later decided to bet on former Border Security Force jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav, who made headlines in 2016 when he complained in a video about the poor quality of food served to soldiers. He was sacked from the BSF for posting the video.

However, with the poll panel rejecting Tej Bahadur Yadav's nomination, the alliance has retained Shalini Yadav as its candidate.

In the absence of any other heavyweights, most political analysts see a victory for Modi from Varanasi as a foregone conclusion. And evidence on the ground does not suggest otherwise. The question is not whether Modi will win but the margin of his victory.

In 2014, Modi bagged 56.4% of the vote share and defeated Kejriwal by over 371,000 votes. Rai was a distant third in that election with a vote share of a mere 7.3%.

From Varanasi's famed Ganga ghats to its narrow and chaotic roads and labyrinthine alleys, it is hard to find a soul that believes Modi could taste defeat in Varanasi. Even those claiming that they would not vote for Modi say that it was next to impossible to defeat him in this election.

After his mega road show on Apr 25, on the eve of filing his nomination papers, even Modi claimed that Varanasi had already elected him. Modi's grand show of strength, thronged by thousands of Bharatiya Janata Party cadres and supporters, brought the city to a standstill, and pointed to a comfortable victory for the prime minister.  

He went one better the next day with a show of unity in the National Democratic Alliance, as he filed his nomination papers flanked by leaders of partner parties such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Shiromani Akali Dal chief Prakash Singh Badal, and Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackrey, among others.

A large section of locals we interacted with claim the face of the city has changed ever since Modi won from Varanasi. The city has seen some beautification and public sanitation has improved, particularly at the ghats.

Even in rural pockets of the constituency, voters claim that Modi's win in 2014 has led to a marked improvement with basic facilities reaching the remotest places.

Although urban infrastructure, such as road connectivity, flyovers, and health services have improved. However, much remains desired in this ancient city with crumbling infrastructure. The mission to clean the Ganga–Namami Gange–that was launched with considerable pomp and show, has also left many in the city underwhelmed.

A substantial number of locals believe that a lot more could have been achieved in the mission to clean the holiest river in Hinduism over the past five years. Most of them, however, appear satisfied with Modi's efforts to that end and blame the local administration instead for lack of execution.

Demonetisation and rollout of the Goods and Services Tax have hit many small business owners and traders in Varanasi, but their dissatisfaction with these policy measures is not enough to desert Modi.

Another count on which the locals appear dissatisfied is the lack of growth in employment opportunities for the youth. But again, in a personality-driven election with no formidable challenger to Modi, such issues are expected to be peripheral at best.

Varanasi has been a BJP stronghold for close to three decades now. Since 1991, the BJP has lost just one Lok Sabha election–in 2004–in Varanasi. The city's prominent place in Hinduism gives the BJP and Modi–with their Hindu nationalist image–a significant edge in the constituency.

Varanasi goes to polls on Sunday in the seventh and final phase of the ongoing General Elections.

Below are the details of the electoral outcome in the constituency in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014:

Total electorate: 1,766,487
Total votes polled: 1,030,685
Voter turnout: 58.35%

CANDIDATE

PARTY

VOTES SECURED

VOTE SHARE

(OVER TOTAL VOTES POLLED)

Narendra Modi

BJP

581,022

56.37%

Arvind Kejriwal

AAP

209,238

20.30%

Ajay Rai

Congress

75,614

7.34%

 

End

Edited by Subham Mitra

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