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In Varanasi, it’s all about Modi’s margin of victory

In Varanasi, it's all about Modi's margin of victory

An overwhelming majority of Varanasians (if I can call them that) I spoke to believe the PM will rout his opponents this time too. They like him for his perceived fight against corruption and for wearing his nationalism on his sleeve, never mind the fact that demonetisation and GST didn’t quite go to plan. He has good intentions, he’s about putting nation first, he’s an honourable guy, is what they had to say.

A Modi victory is a foregone conclusion but the margin of victory is what people are talking about in this flagship constituency, and size matters when you are the leader of a country of 1.3 billion people, the world’s largest democracy. Last time, Modi polled 370,000 more votes than his opponent Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal, however, went on to become chief minister of Delhi and is now a thorn in the PM’s side. The Aam Aadmi Party leader may have moved to Delhi but Ajai Rai, the Congress candidate who came third last time is back to take some more punishment from the PM when the constituency goes to polls in the sixth phase on May 19. Rai came third in the last elections and one wonders what Congress poll managers were thinking when they were setting him up to fail miserably again.In Varanasi, I tried desperately to reach out to Congress officials. Party chief for UP, Raj Babbar, returned late in the evening and said we should meet in Delhi when I am there, which still begs the question: why fight a losing battle? Priyanka Gandhi’s candidature was floated to feel the pulse of the cadre; it added some excitement to the no-contest till then, only to fizzle out when the party announced she won’t be fielded against Modi.

I read that Varanasi is 3,000 years old and is one of the world’s continuously inhabited cities. I searched for the oldest city in the world, and out popped Jericho, in Palestine, which is believed to be 9,000 years old. Yes, Varanasi has age on its side. It even found mention in Mark Twain’s prose.

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” he wrote with such brevity.

I expected much from Benares on my maiden visit. The modern and the ancient side of this city meet, but it raised uncomfortable questions about the BJP trumpeting its agenda for development, yet have nothing to show for it. “What development?” wondered Mumtaz, my driver. “I don’t see it anywhere.” I agreed with him.

A walk through the busy streets where the fragrance of marigold garlands mingles with burning incense and the stench of urine is what hit me. Wonder what happened to the PM’s Swachh Bharat (clean India) campaign in his home constituency? Maybe I didn’t get it right on my walk so I hailed a cycle-rickshaw for a vantage view. The rickshaw pedal power took me to the banks of River Ganga that flows quietly through the city. I had a word with the cyclist on the state of the city’s affairs, and he let it rip, or flow: “My life hasn’t changed. I do the same thing day after day. I have kids and a family. What difference does it make if Modi wins or not?” he asked, anger writ on his visage which look beaten. He was defiant in the face of power and he wanted me to know. “No!,” he said when I again asked him if he would vote for Modi.

A boat ride opened my eyes to the problems that still ail the city. The underlying current of poverty hits me from the gleaming waters that look green-brown in patches. I spoke to the boatman who took us to the centre of the river where an island had sprung up. Vendors were selling wares, others were getting some shut eye in the blistering heat. He wouldn’t disclose who he would vote for. “The waters may have been cleaned, but I see no difference in the way it looks and how I live. I am still where I was 23 years ago when I joined the family profession of Mallah (boatmen).”Many in Varanasi were confident the PM will win by a record margin. Some were more conservative with their figures and said the victory margin would be smaller. The party, though is targeting a 500,000-victory margin. Modi is big among the bhakts in Kashi, and it shows.