This teeming city, considered holy by Hindus, but home to a large proportion of Muslims, is slowly warming up to the political Star War as partymen and supporters of the three main contenders - Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal and Ajai Rai - have begun canvassing for votes for the May 12 Lok Sabha election. Their excitement in the city is evident on the streets and in kasbahs.
People can be seen participating in the Bhartiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's chai par charcha (discussions over tea), five-time legislator and sitting Congress MLA Ajay Rai's door-to-door meetings and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal's chaupal sabhas (corner meetings).
"The people of Varanasi are very excited to see that their city has become so special. When a national level party announces its prime ministerial candidate from your city, excitement can be obvious. And such announcement works positively for the city," Sanjay Srivastava, a professor in the social sciences department of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), told IANS.
But is there a "Modi wave" sweeping the ancient city? Its denizens feel otherwise. There are many for whom the "popular enthusiasm" for Modi is just "partisan propaganda". "Where is the Modi wave? Is it being felt on the street? It is just a media creation," said an academic in a government-run college, asking not to be named. "They (media) have to sell their story and here it is, the big national story. It is the job of the camera to find faces, but these days faces are apparently approaching camera and trying to give an impression that they are all for one face, a national party. It is part of a big poll strategy of a political party," the academic told IANS.
Said senior journalist Gautam Chatterjee: "The sights and direction of Indian politics is now determined by the corporate sector. They sponsor a horse and the media creates a craze for that particular horse like Narendra Modi or Arvind Kejriwal. It's all about who is more profitable for the corporate sector, not for the public." A section of the city feels that it is not a good idea to ignore local leaders - a reference to Congress candidate Ajay Rai - in view of the presence of the Gujarat chief minister and the former chief minister of Delhi. "A five-year term is not enough for outsiders to develop a proper understanding about the ground issues of the city. Their understanding is usually guided by other influential people," said Siddhartha Dave, a coordinator of an NGO that campaigns for health of women and children in the city's interiors.
"In a city like Varanasi with its slow serendip lifestyle, not before two weeks from the vote can you be able to least figure out whose wave is there," said a local party worker. "There is enough scope for polarization. Caste and community equations will decide the game in the coming days," said another journalist. Being a Hindu religious destination, Varanasi has more than 200,000 Brahmin voters out of the 1.6 million voters in the constituency. It also has a staggering 300,000 Muslim voters.
Quami Ekta candidate Mukhtar Ansari's withdrawal from the race, it is said, would stop the diversion of Muslim votes and would benefit Congress candidate Rai, a Bhumihar. At the same time, AAP is slowly making an ingress to the city. "Polarization is not an issue for Muslim votes because full support of the community is with us. Hindu votes will be divided between AAP, Congress and BJP," said AAP leader Gaurav Shah.
"We are going to make a clean sweep on the voting day as our popularity and support in the city is increasing day by day," he claimed. "Our leader Arvind Kejriwal's being an outsider is not an issue among voters as the Lok Sabha election in Varanasi is no more a local-level affair but it has emerged as a national-level event," Shah told IANS. The gathering campaigns, with the growing traffic of leaders and supporters of various political parties, have meanwhile come as a bonus for the local economy.
"For a city that welcomes 200,000-300,000 tourists for various religious purposes every year, this political tourism may be a short-term opportunity, but it is definitely a bonus. And this is another reason of excitement in the town," said the BHU's Srivastava. "Political tourism is certinly beneficial for local vendors, traders, hoteliers, transporters, caterers and tent house service providers."
Dave of the AAP, however, hoped the "political warfare should focus on grassroots issues like roads, electricity, education, employment and health that Varanasi sorely needs".