Lok Sabha polls: Congress plays coy as Varanasi prepares for Priyanka Gandhi versus Narendra Modi battle

Rashme Sehgal

Speculation is rife on whether Priyanka Gandhi will fight the elections from Varanasi. If she decides to take the plunge, the city will witness what can safely be called the mother of all contests.

With a Gandhi daughter pitted against a political figure no lesser than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country will see a bout capable of setting the Ganga, which forms the backdrop of happenings big and small in the city, on fire.

Priyanka, not one to reveal anything in advance, is keeping her cards close to her chest. So is her brother, Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The siblings certainly believe in keeping suspense alive. Their brief hints on just how important this constituency is for the Congress have kept political watchers on their toes.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandi campaigned for Congress candidate in Silchar, Assam. PTI

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandi campaigns for the party candidate in Silchar, Assam. PTI

Almost three weeks ago, Priyanka dropped her first hint. A party worker in Rae Bareli said she wanted her to contest from her mother's constituency. "Why not Varanasi?" asked Priyanka. Her remark set off fervent speculation which she then tried to diffuse by going on to state the following day that she was willing to contest from whichever seat her party would ask her to contest from.

Rahul Gandhi has also kept the pot boiling with his recent comments to a newspaper on the there being no harm in keeping up the "suspense" about Priyanka taking on Modi.

It is obvious that the Congress is trying to test the waters. One crucial reason why they are not willing to disclose their plans could be prevent Modi from contesting from two seats and instead concentrate his campaign efforts to one constituency. The last date for filing nomination papers to contest from the constituency of Varanasi is 29 April. The seat will go to polls in the last and final round of polling. Once voting takes place there on 19 May, there are no further campaigns to be held until the declaration of the results.

Meanwhile, in Varanasi itself, rumours have been circulating that the Indore seat in Madhya Pradesh -- considered a safe seat -- has been kept aside for a "VVIP candidate" who may consider fighting elections from there as well.

Rothin Chaudhary, a former Uttar Pradesh-based trade unionist, said that it was obvious that Congress was trying to ensure that Modi can be pinned down to one seat. "At the height of the Modi wave in 2014, if a complete newcomer like Arvind Kejriwal could win two lakh votes in our city by announcing his candidature mere days before the filing of the nomination, then it is very possible that someone who is a charismatic personality like Priyanka Gandhi can go on and win this election too," said Chaudhary.

Dr Hiralal Yadav, state secretary of CPIM, who contested the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha elections from Varanasi in 2012, held a meeting last week in the city, inviting academics, intellectuals and activists who arrived at the unanimous decision that it was imperative for political parties to come together and announce a joint candidate against Modi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a gathering in Varanasi on Monday. Twitter/@PIB_India

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a gathering in Varanasi. Twitter/@PIB_India

"Even though Varanasi is seen as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh citadel, the Sangh is very aware of the strong undercurrent against the present dispensation. There is an ongoing agitation against the fact that large tracts of land were purchased from farmers to construct the Ring Road project at rates much lower than the prevailing market prices. This was in clear violation of the Land Acquisition Act 2013 and is in contrast to the astronomical rates offered by the government to those living around the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in order to push through a motorable Kashi Vishwanath corridor," says Yadav.

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Yadav believes the average Benarasi citizen is very politically discerning and will not be taken for a ride this time around. "It is now up to political parties to come together and announce a joint candidate. If they decide on Priyanka Gandhi, she will win, if it is somebody else, she too will win. The important point is to ensure that the vote does not get divided," he insists.

But activist Nandlal who has been working for the NGO Lok Kalyan in Nagepur, one of the villages Narendra Modi had adopted, believes that Priyanka will have several factors, in addition to anti-incumbency, working in her favour if she decides to contest from this hot seat.

"First-time voters will definitely gravitate towards her. We will also see a large percentage of the women voters, many of whom have been openly complaining about the lack of representation of women in this state," he says.

Shalini Tripathi, a teacher at a private school in Varanasi, seconds Nandlal's observation. "She is outspoken and does not hesitate to criticize her political opponents including Modi ji. She is also not shrill or high pitched like some of our other women leaders," Tripathi says.

Nandlal also feels that Varanasi's large Muslim population is likely to vote for Priyanka too. Muslims form the largest voting block in the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, with around three lakh voters. Should the opposition parties come together in a steely display of strength, the 1.5 lakh Yadav vote, which usually goes to the Samajwadi Party, would be transferred to the Congress. The same could possibly be said for the 80,000 Dalit votes which would usually go to Mayawati.

The other large vote bank she needs to tap into are the 2.5 lakh Brahmins and the 1.5 lakh Bhumihars who were traditional Congress supporters but have switched loyalties to the BJP. Similar groups are the two lakh Vaishes, one lakh Rajputs, 80,000 Chaurasias and the 65,000 Kayasthas. Among them, Priyanka could well harness the Brahmin and Bhumihar votes.

Varanasi activist and politician Aflatoon, who heads the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, believes there are many questions that are close to the average Varanasi citizen that need to be raised by Priyanka Gandhi is she decides to contest against Narendra Modi.

"The company handling the flyover which collapsed is reported to be owned by a senior minister in the Modi cabinet. Fifteen people died in that collapse and many more were injured but the company's owner was not indicted. We have also learned that most of the street lighting and other projects have all been given to Gujarat-based contractors. In what way are the local businessmen and the local public benefiting from the work being done in this key constituency?" he asks.

The BJP leadership is dismissive of this criticism. "Our work speaks for itself. Our performance here has been outstanding. We have nothing to be scared of. Twenty percent of the Muslims will vote for the BJP and we are confident that Modi will win with a wide majority," said a Varanasi BJP leader who did not want to be named.

Priyanka Gandhi has herself been an unsparing critic of the prime minister, claiming that Modi has ignored Varanasi and has not "visited a single village in his own constituency though he has been travelling around the country and abroad."

There are, however, Congress leaders who believe that Priyanka, as general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh already has more work on her plate than she can handle. A power tussle with arguably the most powerful person in the country could tie her down to one constituency, forcing her to ignore larger duties to the party. Yet Varanasi's citizens are hopeful that under the glare of such a high octane competition, their fortunes can only improve.

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