Not far from the banks of the Ganges, India’s holiest river, Prem Sagar Pal sits in a room strewn with old newspapers and a single computer plotting a way to end Narendra Modi’s quest to become prime minister.
The office, tucked between shops selling toilets and faucets, is home to the year-old Aam Aadmi Party in Varanasi, a constituency in India’s most populous state where Modi himself is contesting. Party leader Arvind Kejriwal yesterday said he’d fight directly against Modi, whose opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leads in opinion polls for elections starting April 7.
“Obviously we’re not as rich as them, but we have an army of volunteers,” Pal, 27, said at the office in Uttar Pradesh state, where lists of names and phone numbers hung from the walls. “We have exposed Congress, and now it’s the turn of the BJP -- who better than their prime ministerial candidate.”
Kejriwal, an anti-corruption campaigner who surprised analysts in December by winning power in Delhi, is one of Modi’s biggest obstacles to taking power as polls show the ruling Congress party headed for its worst-ever performance. A defeat for his Hindu nationalist party in an area where believers scatter their ancestors’ ashes in the Ganges seeking salvation would threaten to impair his image when he woos coalition allies.
“If Modi does lose, then his political career will be doomed,” said Ramesh Dixit, a professor of politics at Lucknow University in the state where Varanasi is located, adding that he expects Modi will win easily. “It will be such an embarrassment, even those in his own party won’t take him seriously. His chances of being prime minister will be ruined.”
Modi, 63, also will contest a seat in his home state of Gujarat, protecting him in case Kejriwal, 45, pulls off a surprise victory in Varanasi. The BJP has won five of the past six elections in the constituency, where tourists flock to see saffron-robed monks conduct evening prayers along the river banks to the sound of ringing bells.
The BJP is poised to win 195 of 543 seats up for grabs in the lower house of parliament in the elections concluding May 16, according to an opinion poll released this month by NDTV Television channel and Hansa Research. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling Congress party, in power for a decade, may get 106 seats, the poll indicated.
Kejriwal, who resigned as Delhi leader in February after 49 days in office following the rejection of an anti-corruption bill, has attacked India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani over gas pricing as he seeks to channel public anger over corruption. India has consumer-price inflation of 8.1 percent, the highest among 18 Asia-Pacific economies tracked by Bloomberg.
“I want him to come here and have a debate in the open,” Kejriwal said at a rally yesterday in Varanasi, referring to Modi. “He doesn’t speak to anyone, comes by helicopter, holds a rally and leaves by helicopter. He has to come here and talk to the people of this country.”
Kejriwal is unlikely to prove a strong opponent to Modi, said Ram Pravesh Pathak, who teaches political science at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. The AAP lacks workers in the area to conduct a door-to-door campaign, a strategy that led to its surprise debut in the Delhi election in which it won 40 percent of the seats, he said.
“Kejriwal is a new experiment in politics,” Pathak said in an interview in his wood-paneled office. “Varanasi is a traditional seat where the electorate is divided along distinct caste and religious lines. So I think it’s going to be very difficult for him to make any inroads here.”
The BJP wants to avoid a repeat of the 2009 elections, when its candidate faced a scare after the regional Bahujan Samaj Party rallied Muslim voters, according to Pathak. In Hindu-majority Varanasi, Muslims account for 16 percent of the population, according to the 2001 Indian Census, slightly higher than the national average in the nation of 1.2 billion people.
Modi’s opponents blame him for 2002 riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, and prompted the U.S. to deny him a visa. Modi denies wrongdoing, and a panel appointed by India’s Supreme Court in 2012 found no evidence that his decisions prevented victims from receiving help.
Modi’s message to Varanasi voters is focused on development instead of religion, Sanjay Bharadwaj, who heads the BJP’s local operations, said while sitting in the party office. Modi has promoted his ability to attract investments from companies such as Ford Motor Co. (F) and Reliance Industries Ltd. in Gujarat, which he’s ruled since 2001.
“It’s a walkover since Kejriwal has no support in Varanasi,” Bharadwaj said. “Modi will win by a margin of at least 100,000 votes.”
Only half of children below two years of age are fully immunized in Varanasi district, while about a quarter of some 1,300 villages have access to medical facilities, according to figures from a program run by U.K.’s Department for International Development.
“I am choosing development,” Kunal Kumar, 21, a political science student in Varanasi, explaining why he plans to cast a ballot for Modi. “Voting for anyone else will be a waste.”
In December, Modi’s rally in Varanasi attracted nearly half a million people. While his speech was limited to the city’s decay and pollution in the Ganges, a large portrait of Hindu Lord Shiva hung in the background as a reminder of the party’s religious roots.
To get out the vote in Varanasi, the BJP is tapping the network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological parent, which advocates the supremacy of India’s Hindu majority and has a considerable presence in this temple town. The organization has already enlisted volunteers to knock on doors and hosted public meetings, according to the BJP’s Bharadwaj.
Even so, Kejriwal’s AAP expects it can pull off an upset win in Varanasi similar to its December victory in Delhi.
“It is a tough task, but it is not an elephant-versus-the-ant battle,” said Pal, a lawyer by trade who is one of three main party leaders in the area. “We are confident of our victory.”
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