In the 19th century, Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib wrote a long poem in praise of Benaras, or Varanasi as it is now known, when when he was on his way to Kolkata and broke his journey in the town. In his famous Persian tribute, Ghalib described the Holy city as the "Kaaba" of India. A century later, Ali Sardar Jafri epitomised Benaras, also called Kashi, as peace and harmony, writing "Tum aao gulshan e Lahore se chaman bardosh, hum aayein subh e Benaras ki roshinin le kar (You bring us flowers from the garden of Lahore, We bring the dawn of Benaras for you).
This city on the banks of the river Ganga is now set for an epic battle. With the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi contesting from here, the Congress has announced that it will field a "strong and a formidable candidate" to challenge Modi's prime ministerial ambitions.
BJP sources say that the Varanasi seat has been carefully chosen keeping in view the election date; May 12 is the last poll date. This will give Modi enough time to keep the heat on, tour other parts of the country and attend to the Varanasi seat as well.
But going by the caste and class composition of this Lok Sabha seat, Modi seems to have taken a political risk. Varanasi is not a totally "safe seat" as being propounded by the media and Modi's opponents. No single caste group dominates here, so there is no question of banking on one group. Its 16 lakh voters include 2 lakh Brahmins, 3.25 lakh Banias or trading community, 3 lakh Muslims, 1.25 lakh Kurmis and an equal number of Yadavs and 90,000 Dalits. The rest are Thakurs, Koeres, Kaisthis and Bhumihars.
Political analysts believe that with this composition, Modi has chosen a tough seat for himself and his cadre will have to work really hard to reach out to every group.
Since 1952, the Congress has won the Varanasi seat seven times, the last in 2004, when the UPA trounced the NDA. The BJP has won this seat five times since 1991. BJP stalwart Dr Murli Manohar Joshi won the seat in 2009 against BSP's Mukhtar Ansari by a margin of 17,211 votes. Then Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate Ajay Rai, who came third, is now in the Congress and a frontrunner to win the mandate.
Realising late that Varanasi can turn into a tough contest, the Congress on Tuesday wondered why would the people of the holy city vote for Modi when he has already started searching for a safe seat in Gujarat within 24 hours of the party deciding to field him from Varanasi in the Lok Sabha elections. "Apparently, he is unsure and uncertain of his political future from Varanasi," Congress spokesman and Haryana minister Randeep Surjewala said at an AICC press briefing. He dismissed talk of the Congress considering AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal as the joint candidate and asserted that the Congress will put up a formidable candidate to contest under its own banner.
The Congress' Central Election Committee recalled the name of Ajay Rai, MLA from Kolasla in Varanasi district, for being selected for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. But Surjewala, who now heads a parallel "war room" set up by Rahul Gandhi, said the party is exploring a surprise candidate who can give a befitting fight to Modi.
While Varanasi residents wait to see who else is in the ring, one is reminded again of Ghalib's words:
The Kaaba of Hind;
This conch blower's dell
May heaven keep the grandeur of Benaras
In this weary temple land of the world,
Safe from the whirlwind of time.