Indian temple-town Varanasi no 'cakewalk' for PM hopeful Modi

NEW DELHI - With India's popular anti-corruption leader Arvind Kejriwal deciding on Tuesday to contest a parliamentary seat from the temple town of Varanasi, in India's largest state Uttar Pradesh, prime ministerial favorite Narendra Modi's hopes of finding a "safe" constituency have ended.

"Varanasi will not be a cakewalk for Modi because the temple town is religious but not communal," says Kashif-ul-Huda, the editor of a popular Indian Muslim news website, highlighting the Modi's hope that Hindu's will vote for his Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) brand of Hindu nationalism.

 "Hindus of Varanasi are an enlightened people. They very clearly understand the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva," says Huda. Muslims too, will not vote just based on religions says documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma. 

 "The Muslim vote is likely to be cast in favor of the most serious challenger," says Sharma, whose next film deals with the rise of right-wing extremism. "When there was a bomb blast in Varanasi, Hindus and Muslims joined hands together to stop polarization."

He agrees that Varanasi will be a close-fight, despite the town being a traditionally safe seat for BJP. The right-wing party have won five of the last six elections there. 

"BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi won last time with a slender margin of 17,000 votes. In 2004, Congress won the seat. So, it is by no means a safe seat for Modi," says Sharma. "BJP will put many resources into the constituency as Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions will get a serious jolt if he loses here."

Sharma adds that Kejriwal, who heads the emerging Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), will be a serious contestant for Modi and that he could be aided by Congress and regional parties allowing a direct battle between the two by not fielding their own candidates. 

  Kejriwal is a serious challenger, not because of his winnability factor but he is the only one seriously attacking Modi, asking hard questions that no other political party does, deflating his spurious claims about the so-called Gujarat model of development and raising the issue of communalism that the Congress doesn't have the courage to raise, he says. 

"By taking on Modi in a direct electoral battle, he is setting the agenda and bringing into limelight the very questions Modi’s PR machinery had hoped to whitewash, aided by the millions from his crony capitalist friends,” he says. 

Writer-activist Subhash Gatade says the only serious challenge to Modi would be a united opposition. "If there is a united candidate against Modi and the opposition is not divided among regional parties then it will be an interesting fight between the right-wing leader and Kejriwal."

 "Aam Aadmi Party lacks a strong local network in Varanasi and Uttar Pradesh," he says. “When Aam Aadmi Party won Delhi elections last year, there was a lot talk of its impact in Haryana and Maharashtra state. There is no narrative of its impact in Uttar Pradesh."

 Shamim Tariq, a noted columnist and political commentator who hails from Varanasi, says the contest will polarize the voters in the state and that the AAP may not be able to beat the BJP's more established presence. "Modi’s decision to fight from the temple town is likely to polarize voters not just in Varanasi but in entire Uttar Pradesh," says Tariq. 

 “I don't consider Aam Aadmi Party as a fully-evolved political party yet. It is more of an angry reactionary movement against the establishment."

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