As darkness fell on the mother of all rallies in Varanasi on Saturday, the city wasn’t saying who won the day – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who relaunched himself by garlanding the statue of freedom fighter and Hindutva leader Madan Mohan Malaviya, or alliance partners Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, who embarked on their own roadshow by garlanding a statue of BR Ambedkar on the other side of the city.
Rally for rally, statue for statue, an open jeep for the PM versus an open bus for Akhilesh-Rahul, ‘darshans’ at the Kashi Vishwanath temple and a sea of supporters for both leaders. The BJP and the alliance had thrown all their might in mobilising thousands of people, keenly aware that the demonstrated showmanship was much more important than the message.
Gripped By the Modi Wave
It was left to Mahant Vishwambar Nath Mishra, the high priest of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, to put some perspective on the remains of the day.
“I watched on TV how (power minister) Piyush Goyal fought with policemen because they were removing some Modi posters. Is this what central ministers have been reduced to, is this what Modi ji wants?” the Mahant asked rhetorically.
The Prime Minister certainly brought the city alive, with people showering rose and marigold petals on him as he drove slowly by. Watching his motorcade pass through Gadaulia, a major crossroads in the heart of the city with its distinctive Nandi bull statue on high, you got the distinct feeling that Modi ji had turned the tide in favour of his BJP candidates.
A few Muslim men in their long cotton coats and skull caps gave the story away, when, in the wake of Modi’s chariot, they began to shout “Modi, Modi!” If this was the litmus test of patriotism, they must have felt, well, here it was.
Akhilesh-Rahul Fight Back
And then there was Akhilesh-Rahul. Thousands of young men – there were hardly any women in both places – nearly caused a stampede around their vehicle, throwing their commandos into a tizzy.
For a few dangerous minutes, it was totally chaotic. The energy of a crowd unleashed can be incredible – as Modi well knows. He did it in 2014, reaching for the Prime Minister’s crown. In several state elections since, he has been the star campaigner for his party.
Here, too, in Uttar Pradesh, as this amazingly long election enters its last lap, the chant “Modi, Modi” is enough to galvanise his cadres. No one really cares who the candidate is. BJP supporter after BJP supporter told this reporter that they were “voting for Modi,” not who was standing from the various Assembly seats in Varanasi.
But the most important message of the day in Varanasi on Saturday is the way Akhilesh-Rahul have fought back. Alliance strategists have pulled off the impossible by countering the BJP machinery in every area of the game. It’s another matter who will win the Varanasi jackpot on 11 March.
In Modi’s Constituency, the Battle Lines Are Drawn
On Saturday, Akhilesh-Rahul showed that they were certainly not going to roll over and allow Narendra Modi to walk all over them. That 2017 was different from 2014, and that they had since learnt to stand up for an alternate idea of India.
Certainly, that’s a real message for the next big fight in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi, the quieter one of the Akhilesh-Rahul duo, waved enthusiastically from the bus. Akhilesh is clearly carrying Rahul’s Congress on his shoulders, but he seems to have stuck it out.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi brought along Banaras Hindu University Vice-Chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi along with him on his roadshow. The Vice-Chancellor is controversial not only because of his RSS background, but also because of the way he runs BHU.
In Varanasi on Saturday, the battle lines are drawn. Once again, the fight has come down to what will happen in the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency. This is the heart of the struggle. Winning or losing in the rest of Uttar Pradesh is more or less irrelevant.
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)