Speculation has been rife regarding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra taking her electoral plunge from Varanasi, to take on the Prime Minister, in a battle which could far overshadow every other political narrative in the country. However, keen political observers following the unfolding developments in Uttar Pradesh are of the opinion that former Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, could possibly be the most formidable challenger to Narendra Modi from the holy city.
Akhilesh has already declared his candidacy from Azamgarh, which is a Yadav bastion, and his victory from there is a foregone conclusion. He has worked extremely hard to stitch an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and has in the process, consciously played second fiddle to Mayawati, his “Bua”, to consolidate the Mahagathbandhan. Therefore if he opts for Varanasi as his second seat, he could take the battle into the BJP’s most prestigious constituency, given the caste profile of the seat.
Varanasi has a sizeable Yadav population and an electorate comprising three lakh Muslims. In addition, the forward castes’ disenchantment with the BJP over the denial of tickets to prominent Brahmin leaders could contribute to his campaign muscle. The Dalit and Patidar votes also would consolidate the former CM’s position, thereby compelling the BJP to use all its resources and wherewithal to ensure the victory of the Prime Minister, who is seeking to retain the seat. Modi is expected to file his nomination on 26 April for the constituency, which goes to the polls on 19 May.
According to the reports pouring in the BJP’s position in the Lok Sabha seats adjoining Varanasi is shaky and the saffron brigade is hopeful that once Modi revisits these areas, the scenario may undergo a major change. However, if caste combinations come into play, all the current calculations perhaps may go askew. After Murli Manohar Joshi was not granted the ticket to contest from Kanpur, from where he was elected last time, pressure apparently was mounted on him to move to his previous constituency, Varanasi, as an Independent, with the support of Opposition groups. Joshi being a committed believer in the Sangh ideology was evidently opposed to the idea, and decided to stay on in the BJP, thus denying the PM’s detractors an opportunity to take advantage of his disillusionment with the central leadership.
However, in the aftermath of the BJP deciding not to field five prominent veteran Brahmin leaders, Joshi being the most notable, the upper castes, in more ways than one, have expressed their reservations to the Sangh Parivar. The other leaders denied the ticket include Kalraj Mishra from Deoria, Shanta Kumar from Kangra, B.C. Khanduri from Garhwal, and now, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan from Indore.
Akhilesh has the advantage of understanding the caste and community arithmetic of the state at the grassroots level. He and other opposition groups are also mindful that UP would determine more than any other state, whether the BJP retains power at the Centre. It has 80 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP and its allies had won 73 of them. Thus if the Opposition wrests these seats the number game would undergo a drastic change. The BJP is reposing all faith in the PM to sway the poll in its favour. But if Akhilesh was to enter the fray from Varanasi, he has the potential of eroding the BJP in multiple constituencies.
Over a period of time, throughout the country, some very enthused contests have been witnessed involving important leaders. Indira Gandhi was defeated from Rae Bareli in 1977 by veteran socialist leader, Raj Narain. Prior to that, in 1967, S.K. Patil, a Congress stalwart was humbled by another upcoming socialist leader, George Fernandes from Bombay South. Shashi Bhushan, then an unknown politician, defeated Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Balraj Madhok from South Delhi in 1971, while an equally low profile Mukul Banerjee trounced Prof Manohar Lal Sondhi from adjoining New Delhi.
The 1984 election witnessed several top leaders meeting more than their match. Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost to Madhavrao Scindia from Gwalior and Hemvati Nandan Bahunga was vanquished by Amitabh Bachchan from Allahabad. In the 1989 elections, Rajiv Gandhi won against Rajmohan Gandhi from Amethi, in a battle that was billed as the fight between Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandson and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi triumphed over Sushma Swaraj from Bellary in Karnataka while in the same year, Dr Manmohan Singh lost to Vijay Kumar Malhotra from South Delhi.
Therefore, if Akhilesh decides on contesting from Varanasi, the elections, in the remaining phases, could also be impacted. Modi is the sole spearhead of the BJP campaign and thus may find himself spending more time in the place regarded as the most ancient city in the world. However, if the Opposition is unable to put up a prominent face in Varanasi, it would be a walkover for Modi. Akhilesh’s presence, even more than Priyanka’s, could electrify the political atmosphere in what would be the central battle in the Mahabharat of elections. It could perhaps be as engrossing as the duel between Arjun and Karan, where the outcome alone would determine who out of the two, would be Arjun and Karan, the modern day reincarnations (avatars), of the epical heroes.
Modi undoubtedly is the most successful leader of the present times. Akhilesh is young and has Prime Ministerial ambitions. If he throws his hat in the ring from Varanasi, regardless of the result, he would become a major player in national politics. Between us.