By choosing a town steeped in religion as his constituency, Narendra Modi has not furthered his development credentials

Put it down to the many ironies of Indian politics that the man who has been doing a relentless japam of how badly India needs development had to finally seek his path to moksha through the holy city of Varanasi — Banaras, Kashi, take your pick. But then our fascination for all things holy or religious is total and we have a plethora of hallowed places in this country, for all religions — from Ayodhya to Ajmer.

Over the centuries, look at the atrocities this country has been subjected to, and committed, in the name of religion. So while our Ayodhyas, Kashis, Ajmers and Mathuras abound, we are yet to set up an iconic city that can be taken as a model of exemplary development. Ahmedabad, did you say? Just take a walk down the streets of Kalupur and Juhapura and you’ll change your mind.

Political compulsions

Of course there were political compulsions in making way for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi to contest from Varanasi, gently pushing out of the has-been leader Murli Manohar Joshi. Internal surveys by the BJP had shown that while in western UP the party was bound to do well (aided of course by the horrendous and lethargic response of Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party to the communal flare-up in Muzaffarnagar), in the rather backward Poorvanchal that comprises eastern UP and adjoining parts of Bihar, the saffron flag was not flying high.

While Banaras, or the abode of Lord Shiva, has always been a kind of spiritual capital, Joshi, its representative in Parliament, had not exactly given the constituency any visibility or importance politically.

But Modi’s announcement, that too just before Holi, has predictably electrified the city. Echoes of slogans of a bygone era such as “Agli bari Atal Bihari” have made way for newer jingles such as “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar” and, most recently, “Bachha maangey ma ki godi, Kashi maangey Narendra Modi” (Kashi yearns for Modi, just as a child its mother’s lap). With Modi’s candidature, the status of Varanasi gets mega-political importance and the BJP hopes that its reverberations will create matching magic in the entire Poorvanchal region.

Going by present indications --- the waves Modi is making not only in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh but also in southern states like Kerala where his party is all set to make a debut, and Tamil Nadu where, for the first time, the BJP has attracted a bunch of significant allies --- the party is likely to do well.

Media frenzy

As though the man of the moment’s contesting from Varanasi was not enough to galvanise the media and trigger countrywide debates on what his victory margin will be, Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has threatened to take on Modi from there. Alas, the combative Kejriwal will find that Modi is no Sheila Diskhit, and that too at the end of a three-term stint as Delhi chief minister. With the two principal candidates having their love-hate relationship with the media, political enthusiasts and aficionados can look forward to a media frenzy and a barrage of stories and telecasts from this holy city.

Another reason for Modi to contest a seat from UP is related to the unwritten code of Indian politics that the Indian prime minister has to be elected from UP — barring, of course, Morarji Desai, Narasimha Rao and Deve Gowda who were “outsiders”. So Modi’s victory from Varanasi will be another feather in UP’s cap.

It could well have been Lucknow. After all, Vajpayee, the lone BJP Prime Minister, had returned to the Lok Sabha several times from here. Victory from Lucknow, with its large Shia population and historic Awadh culture, would have really sent out a strong a statement about Modi’s wider acceptability. Whereas Modi’s candidature from Varanasi sends out the opposite signal. He may not raise passions on the Hindutva plank but his contesting from the abode of Lord Shiva and the city where the ghats of the Ganga are considered sacred by millions of Hindus, has a clear subtext.

Modi reborn?

The choice of Varanasi wouldn’t have raised eyebrows for a Modi who spoke incessantly about “Mian” Musharraf or called an earlier chief election commissioner by his full Christian name — James Michael Lyngdoh. But the Modi we see today, and who is slowly drawing a section of Muslims and Christians to his side, speaks only the language of development. A language which says that clean, firm and effective governance will make India prosperous and improve the living conditions, employment opportunities, and so on of all Indians. After this, why Varanasi?

While the Modi juggernaut rolls on and the general perception, confirmed by almost all election surveys, is that the NDA is set to unseat the UPA, unfortunately the single factor that can trip him is his own party.

At first the former BJP chief Nitin Gadkari — there is no love lost between him and Modi — took the strange step of seeking Raj Thackeray’s support in Mumbai when the BJP is in alliance with Raj’s bête noire Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. Next we saw him embrace yoga guru Ramdev at a meet where the latter chided Modi for being in an unseemly hurry to become prime minister and certified Gadkari as a “clean and straight man”.

Ramdev is, is of course, miffed with Modi and his BJP for denying tickets to his nominees, some of them highly questionable characters! While the Modi typhoon is bound to sweep away a Gadkari here or a Sushma Swaraj (she has tweeted about her opposition to the re-entry into the BJP of BS Sriramulu, a close aide of the jailed mining baron Janardhan Reddy) there, this public posturing and dissent strikes a discordant note.

I can’t help wondering why Modi couldn’t have chosen the most backward constituency in the group of 543. There are several available in the states of UP, MP, Bihar, Orissa and Rajasthan. He could have told the electorate: Give me five years and I will make this the best developed and model constituency in the country. Perhaps, after his impending defeat in Varanasi, Arvind Kejriwal, the new messiah, will pick up this gauntlet?

(This article was published on March 17, 2014)
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