f there is a race in Varanasi, it is for the second place. The winner, as locals say, was decided on 24 April, the day Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers amidst a surge of saffron. One of the two, either Arvind Kejriwal or Congress' Ajai Rai, a local MLA, will have an "honourable defeat" provided Muslims vote for him en masse, they say. The talk is about Modi's victory margin, with his most virulent critics hoping that it will be a lowly 50,000.
"If the victory margin is below one lakh, it cannot be considered a great win for a man of Narendra Modi's stature," asserts a Sikh shopkeeper, Kulwant Singh at Pappu Chai Dukan (Pappu teashop), a popular haunt for local politicians near Assi Ghat.
The evening debate at the 100-year-old Pappu Chai Dukan is loud but good humoured. Two Aam Aadmi Party volunteers' attempt to sway the gathering in Kejriwal's favour is met with strong resistance. "There is no doubt that Kejriwal is a good man, but does he have any organisation in Varanasi? You are over ambitious, you are not committed," Harshvardhan Rai admonishes AAP's Ankush Chaudhry, who has come from Meerut to canvass for his leader. In a pincer movement, a NaMo T-shirt wearing "Engineer Surendra Dev" quarrels, "You talk only against the BJP, but not against Congress' misdeeds."
"Iss baar to sab Modi pe ja rahein hai (This time everyone is going to Modi)," is the common refrain in both the modern and ancient parts of this holy city.
Inside the serpentine Kachauri Gali leading up to Manikarnika Ghat and Kashi Vishwanath temple, the majority support is for BJP, with a smattering of Ajai Rai followers expressing their loyalty to the local man by hanging Congress flags from their shops. Strains of Modi's speech waft inside the dank lane as shopkeepers watch news on their 14-inch TV sets. Paneer-seller Ajay Yadav says that he voted for the Samajwadi Party in the 2012 Assembly elections, but will vote for Modi this time "because we have to think of the country as well and not just caste".
"Caste barriers are breaking down in these elections. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are losing their hold on voters because they do not have a national agenda," says Professor R.P. Pathak, who teaches political science at the Banaras Hindu University. He estimates Mayawati to hold on to her core Dalit base, while losing her Brahmin voters to the BJP. AAP may get some votes from the downtrodden, apart from Muslims, he says.
AAP seems to have found support among the residents of a Dalit colony near Pandepur. However, similar support is not visible in the Malin (a caste of dhobis) settlement of Indrapur Dhobiyan, where the villagers are vocal about the greatness of Behenji.
The decision by the Janata Dal (United) to support AAP has not got the latter any traction among Kurmi voters, who number over 1.5 lakh in this constituency of 17 lakh voters. JDU's Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is a Kurmi but so is Apna Dal's Anupriya Patel, who is now a BJP ally. But even Patel's name does not evoke any response among the youngsters of Laskar Gaon, a village of Patels and a few Rajbhars. "We went to the city to see Modi's road show. We saw him," says first-time voter Deepak. "Our village is totally with Modi. If you want to meet AAP supporters, try the two Sikh families over there," he points at a distance to a clutch of buildings.
THE MUSLIM FACTOR
In the Muslim majority locality of Adampur in Varanasi city, one does not have to go hunting for an AAP supporter. A large section of the crowd gathered at the entrance of a lane is voluble in their support for Kejriwal. They say they are against "Congress corruption and BJP communalism".
"But these guys were never Congress supporters. They were with SP and BSP," complains the Congress section of the crowd.
The mood among a large section of Muslims is distinctly pro-AAP. When asked about the diktat by Jama Masjid's Imam Bukhari that Muslims should vote for secular forces (read, Congress), Abdul Mugni is curt: "Bikau maal hai (he is sold out)." Mugni and his fellow trustees of Madrasa Mazhrul-Uloom say that Bukhari was with the SP but shifted allegiance when his son-in-law was not made a minister in Uttar Pradesh. "The man cannot even control his own home, how will he control Muslims?"
The dean of BHU, Prof Kumar Pankaj says that Muslims will decide who to vote for only a day before the elections.
The Congress candidate, the bahubali (strongman) Ajai Rai, MLA from Pindra, tells this newspaper that Muslims will come around and support him on the day of voting. Rai, who was MLA with BJP, joined SP when he was denied a Lok Sabha ticket by his party in 2009. He lost that election and is now with the Congress. When asked about Rai, the common refrain among voters is, "Badlu hai (he is a turncoat)." But Rai has a bigger problem. He has joined hands with Quami Ekta Dal of Mukhtar Ansari, the don who is in jail for murdering Rai's brother.
"How can anyone support a man like that?" asks an indignant restaurant hostess, Amrita.
Rai, who has spent a large part of his adult life fighting Ansari, looks away when told about the anger on the ground. "It was a decision taken at the central level (Delhi) and was done for the party," he replies quietly.
Even the staunchest of BJP supporters say that Rai, who is rooted to the ground, had a good chance of winning if he was not fighting against Modi. But that is in the domain of speculation. For the time being, the BJP is claiming that Rai, because he joined hands with Ansari, is losing a large section of his fellow Bhumihar vote to Modi.
At the BJP office in a brand new building in Rathyatra, Sudhir Mishra, the party's Varanasi secretary, talks of booth level mobilisation. The party has panna pramukhs, or page in-charges to monitor every page of the electoral roll. Varanasi has a little over 1,600 booths, and the BJP hopes to mobilise around 32,000 polling agents for 12 May, 20 agents per booth.
At Sigra, where Congress leaders Mohan Prakash and Nirmala Sawant are holding a meeting with their party workers, the talk is all about booth management. Ajai Rai tells this newspaper that he, being a local, has thousands of workers for polling day, unlike BJP "which is bringing workers from outside".
A BJP worker scoffs when his attention is drawn to the smart young men and women going around in tees, jeans and white caps, campaigning for AAP: "They are outsiders and all of them will have to leave on 10 May. What happens then?"
The last lap will not be easy for AAP.
At AAP's Lok Sabha office in Shivaji Nagar, Raj Kiran, an iPhone toting engineer and MBA from Bangalore puts the total AAP strength in Varanasi on a regular day to around 800, half of whom are locals. Their target is to recruit around 1,000-1,200 local volunteers by 12 May, so that they have some presence on the ground on voting day.
Dhruv, a young national award winning theatre artist from Mumbai and an AAP member says he will go to jail but will not leave Varanasi before voting. "I am an Indian citizen. No law can throw me out," he smiles, while sitting on a rickety bench outside Hathua market. He says he believes in kranti, and that there will be revolution one day and India will see a better future under Kejriwal.
On the BHU campus, a group of students, all Modi supporters, talk of civil service examinations and a secure future of jobs and a good life.
Kranti, AAP style, is not starting from Varanasi.