Narendra Modi's rather unusually harsh criticism of Arvind Kejriwal can raise the question whether the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate has been unnerved by the challenge posed by the Aam Admi Party (AAP) leader in the contest for the Varanasi seat.
Compared to the Gujarat chief minister, who won three successive terms in the state and is now the numero uno in the BJP, Kejriwal is an untested novice. Moreover, his curious way of functioning during his 49-day stint as Delhi's chief minister, including staging a dharna, induced Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to call him an 'yeda', an expressive Marathi term for an eccentric.
For someone like Modi, who is playing a prominent role on the national stage, the best way to treat a maverick like Kejriwal is with amused superciliousness. But to launch a vicious attack by calling him a "Pakistani agent" and a "dushman" (enemy) of the nation is to overshoot the mark. The funny aspect of his description of Kejriwal as AK-49, recalling his brief 49-day spell as chief minister, was lost in the subsequent tirade.
If anything, the tongue-lashing will be seen not only as excessive but also as a sign of nervousness. Whether by accident or design, Kejriwal's response to Modi's transgression of limits was surprisingly mild, surprising because the AAP leader himself is not shy of being intemperate.
Yet, he only said that Modi's remark did not suit a prime ministerial aspirant. If points were to be notched up with regard to the verbal duel, the first round went to Kejriwal.
However, the reason why Modi flew off the handle is not far to seek. The BJP leader has been under considerable pressure in recent weeks. Not only is he engaged in a strenuous campaign, he is also having to fight a battle against detractors in his own party.
Nor are they relative lightweights like Jaswant Singh (who was once expelled from the BJP) or Harin Pathak, both of whom were kept out of the election contest by him. Instead, Modi is up against two heavyweights; the octogenarian "mentor", L.K. Advani, and the silver-tongued orator, Sushma Swaraj, who was preferred by one of the BJP's allies, the Shiv Sena, as the prime ministerial candidate.
Modi must have also come under heavy strain while trying, albeit successfully, to dislodge two members of the old guard, Murli Manohar Joshi and Lalji Tandon, from their old constituencies, Varanasi and Lucknow, to accommodate Modi in the temple town and his camp follower, party president Rajnath Singh, in Lucknow.
All this skirmishing is apparently beginning to tell. Besides, Modi cannot be unaware of the uneasiness in the BJP about his propensity to be "insular' and "distrustful", as an American diplomat described him in an internal memo, according to Wikileaks.
It is noteworthy that one of his acolytes, Arun Jaitley, has said, out of the blue, that there is no question of replacing Modi. Since the issue has not been raised publicly by either friend or foe, Jaitley's comment is probably directed at those in the BJP who believe that Modi will be a liability in the matter of attracting allies if the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) falls well short of the half-way mark of 272 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha.
Modi's disadvantages will be enhanced if he cannot achieve a runaway victory in Varanasi. Few will doubt that he will win. But much depends on the margin of victory. In this respect, Kejriwal can be a spoiler. The AAP leader already has a reputation of being a giant killer for having trounced former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit by 25,000 votes.
He may not be able to repeat his feat. But he is a highly effective speaker, capable of cutting observations which appeal to the ordinary people because he zeroes in on the patent weak points of politicians, viz, their suspected links with moneybags and the penchant for making tall claims.
Till the AAP leader appeared on the scene, Modi had a relatively easy time. The Congress is sinking while Rahul Gandhi continues to give the impression that politics is not his chosen field. He obviously has to force himself to inject passion in his speeches. He expresses borrowed ideas, probably from his mother, with a few Utopian inputs of his own.
For Modi and his supporters, the winning ticket was apparently sealed and signed with a known outcome expected to be delivered on May 16. But it is no longer as certain as before. No one knows what effect the internal opposition to him will have on the final result or how it will influence public opinion.
If the emails being circulated by saffron activists about the dollars being credited to Kejriwal by the Ford Foundation are an indication, the BJP is not taking the Varanasi battle lightly. For Modi, the endgame is not going to be a cakewalk.