An intense, behind the scenes, battle is on between the Congress and the AAP to corner Muslim votes in the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency. The goal is to prove, once and for all, to Muslims that only their respective candidates can defeat BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Modi's roadshow last week was an eye-opener for the Muslims. It brought the spectre of a Modi win closer home. If the Hindus are one behind Modi, the Muslims are lock, stock and barrel against the Gujarat chief minister. They want to see the back of him come what may.
AAP candidate Arvind Kejriwal is aiming for all the Muslim votes in the constituency. Congress nominee Ajay Rai too wants the minority community to back him. The battle lines are clearly drawn. The victor gets the Muslim vote, and the outside chance to trounce Modi.
Right now the Congress and AAP are at war. It's a door-to-door, block-by-block fight. Locality by locality. Village by village. Kejriwal has been holding 'nukkad sabhas' in Muslim localities of Varanasi. Rai is largely unseen. Priyanka Gandhi had promised to campaign for him. But husband Robert Vadra's and brother Rahul's troubles have kept her away.
As for the Muslim, he has not made up his mind even this close to the election. He is caught between old flame Congress and new suitor AAP. Rai is 'Varanasi's saccha saput'. Kejriwal carries the "outsider" baggage.
Kejriwal is a Baniya. Baniyas number around 30% of the total Hindu votes of roughly 6-7 lakh (excluding the Dalits) in Varanasi. One would have thought Kejriwal would be the first choice for the Baniya community. But that's not happening. Baniyas have been traditional BJP supporters, and with Modi in the fray, they aren't prone to sway.
"We're Modi supporters. The tallest Baniya leader here, Shankar Prasad Jaiswal was a BJP MP. The current Varanasi (north) MLA Ravinder Jaiswal is from the BJP. Business needs Modi. Kejriwal will not get the Baniya vote," says Kishen Jaiswal, a BJP worker.
The Muslim voter wants to be sure who among the two is more capable of defeating Modi. Beniyabagh, where Kejriwal was holding nukkad sabhas last week, happens to be home to the family of Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Bismillah Khan's son has weighed in favour of Ajay Rai.
"They number around 3.5 lakh out of a total of nearly 15 lakh voters. Even if all Muslims vote for Kejriwal or Rai, it will be difficult for either to defeat Modi," says Ram Sundar Mishra, an accountant at a travel agency, and a "poll-watcher". "Kejriwal will not get more than 20 to 25 per cent of the Muslim vote, 70% will go to Ajay Rai. When Mukhtar Ansari pulled out, it was in favour of Rai, not Kejriwal."
No Muslim in Varanasi will say that. In fact, the Muslim in Varanasi is as quiet as the Ganga's flow is. Walk through Muslim localities like Beniyabagh, Dalmandi and Madanpura and you only meet silence if you ask them their preference. Modi has united them in sullen silence. It's the same in the villages.
AAP doesn't give ear to that argument. AAP believes the young Muslim is different. He will defy tradition and religious diktat to vote for Kejriwal. "Muslims are overwhelmingly with Arvind, especially after his roadshow on April 23, and more so after Modi's roadshow on April 24. They are impressed by Arvind's roadshow. They have made up their minds. They will vote for Arvind," says Prerna Prasad, AAP's media in-charge in Varanasi.
AAP's strategy is to convince Muslims that only Kejriwal can defeat Modi. AAP is quietly working towards that end, to convince the Muslim voter to trust in Kejriwal to win. The cream of AAP is in Varanasi to woo the Muslim, holding nukkad sabhas in the city and chaupals in the rural areas.
"The Modi roadshow has galvanised us, and the Muslims," says Prasad. "Even the skeptics among Muslims got the message. The fight is between Arvind and Modi."
The AAP headquarters in Shivaji Nagar (Plot No 11) in Varanasi wears a deserted look these days. AAP leaders Ashutosh, Manish Sisodia, Gopal Rai, Rakhi Birla and Somnath Bharti are all in town, but they are out campaigning. "At this time of the day (around 2.30pm), Arvind must be resting in his 'house' in Durgakunj in south Varanasi," says Prerna. "Gopal Rai is campaigning in the villages. Arvind addressed a nukkad sabha in the morning. Ashutosh is campaigning door-to-door in the city. Rakhi Birla is getting through to the Dalits."
The nukkad sabha is an AAP offering to Varanasi, says Prerna. So is the chaupal. "People over here have never seen such a campaigning style. It's live interaction with around 50-100 people. A one-on-one when people get to speak of their problems. It's been a hit."
The 25-year-old Prasad, who was a journalist with CNN-IBN till last year, says Kejriwal's candidature changed the equation in Varanasi, that only Kejriwal can defeat Modi. That's the realisation in AAP post the Modi roadshow. Do the Muslims also feel the same? May 12, the day of voting in Varanasi, will tell.