Of the many constituency wrestling matches that collectively make up India’s imminent general election, Narendra Modi versus Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi has to be the marquee bout.
Modi is the odds-on favourite. Three times chief minister of Gujarat, beloved of business, buoyed by the polls, Modi has chosen Varanasi because it is Hinduism’s holiest city and he is, by common consent, Hindutva’s champion heavyweight.
Having routed the Congress in his home state, Gujarat, and burnished his Hindu nationalist credentials by brazening out the pogrom that occurred on his watch in 2002, he is now making his claim to all-India leadership by standing for Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest province and one that Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, must win decisively to have any chance of forming the next government.
Modi’s Varanasi candidature is meant to achieve two things. First it is intended to acomplish his informal coronation as Hindu India’s alpha male. Second, the enthusiasm generated by Modi in Varanasi is designed to lift the prospects of the BJP’s other candidates in eastern UP, spilling over, even, into neighbouring Bihar.
The BJP’s chances in western UP were improved by the communal polarisation wrought by the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013: two BJP politicians charged with instigating violence during that conflagration have been given election tickets. Modi’s candidature is intended to achieve a similar consolidation of the Hindu vote in the province’s eastern constituencies.
On the face of it, the Modi-Kejriwal contest is a mismatch, Hulk Hogan challenged by a bantamweight. Kejriwal heads the Aam Admi Party, a fledgling outfit founded a year ago. Its one electoral success was a surprisingly strong showing in Delhi’s state elections a few months ago, where, despite coming second to the BJP in an inconclusive election that didn’t produce a clear majority, the AAP succeeded in forming a minority government.
Against the BJP’s resources and cadres and Modi’s charisma as a Hindu strongman who gets things done, Kejriwal brings little more than his reputation as a giant-killer
This government, headed by Kejriwal as Chief Minister, had a brief but hectic career. Kejriwal resigned office in 49 days, claiming that the two principal opposition parties in Delhi, the BJP and the Congress, had conspired to block legislation designed to install a powerful ombudsman, the centrepiece of AAP’s anti-corruption crusade.
Against the BJP’s resources and cadres and Modi’s charisma as a Hindu strongman who gets things done, Kejriwal brings little more than his reputation as a giant-killer (he took on and defeated Delhi’s three-term chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, in the Delhi elections), a populist politics that targets crony capitalism and corruption, and a small but committed band of volunteer campaigners whose street-savvy and enthusiasm helped AAP pull off an electoral upset in Delhi.
Modi’s greatest advantage over Kejriwal or any other candidate pitted against him is the aura of being India’s prime-minister-in-waiting. Varanasi’s electors, like voters in any constitiuency, look forward to being nursed by their MP and the prospect of being cosseted by India’s future prime minister must be an incentive to vote for Modi. The BJP also has the advantage of incumbency; Murli Manohar Joshi, a BJP veteran, won the Varanasi seat in the 2009 general elections.
Modi has the comfort of knowing that his party won here with a vastly less popular candidate; given the near-frenzied enthusiasm for Modi amongst the BJP’s cadres, it is reasonable for him to believe that he will improve on Joshi’s performance.
Interestingly, Kejriwal will also take heart from Joshi’s election result. Joshi won a plurality of the votes cast, but that plurality consisted of no more than thirty percent of the vote. The Bahujan Samaj Party candidate who came second was a Muslim who polled just three percent less than Joshi’s share of the vote.
Put another way, the BJP candidate won just over two hundred thousand votes while the four runners-up from the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, the Indian National Congress and the Apna Dal, aggregated roughly four hundred and forty thousand votes. Even allowing for the fact that Modi will almost certainly capture some of these voters, a consolidation of the non-BJP vote could, theoretically, upset the BJP’s calculations.
Some years ago psephologists used a rule of thumb called the ‘index of opposition unity’ as a way of calculating the Congress’s chances in an election. The Congress in those days was the default party of government and could count on a plurality of votes in most seats. So its prospects in any election were improved by multi-corner contests that divided the non-Congress vote.
In this election, the BJP, given its strong showing in early opinion polls, is the party likely to benefit from a division of the opposition vote. The one way Modi can be pipped to the post in Varanasi is if the non-BJP vote coalesces around Kejriwal.
There are two ways this could happen. One, the other parties could close ranks behind Kejriwal to defeat the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee. The BSP and SP are essentially provincial parties and UP is their political turf. The largest threat to their electoral strongholds is the BJP which is looking to win forty and more seats in the province.
Both parties have fielded political non-entities in Varanasi because their political leaders are chary of Modi’s juggernaut and don’t want to be reduced to roadkill. Ergo, self-preservation might goose these parties into supporting Kejriwal’s candidature, given that he’s the only politician in India with the nerve, nous and profile to seriously challenge Modi.
The problem with this scenario is that it glosses over the real world roadblock to a united front behind Kejriwal. The main obstacle to an anti-Modi coalition in Varanasi is Kejriwal’s habit of routinely citing the BSP and the SP as embodiments of the political corruption that the AAP is determined to purge from India’s body politic.
Why would Mayawati (the BSP’s supremo) and Mulayam Singh Yadav (the SP’s founder) eat electoral crow to help an insolent, carpet-bagging upstart win Varanasi in their political backyard?
The second possibility is utopian in its wishfulness. In this scenario AAP’s reputation for integrity, its targeting of corruption and its populist pluralism sweeps up Dalits, Muslims, OBCs and urban professionals into a winning electoral coalition without the aid of the political middlemen who claim to control caste and community loyalties in UP. This would mean upending the political common sense that insists that the AAP’s anti-corruption politics which played so well in Delhi won’t work in India’s provincial hinterland where political preferences are strongly determined by caste and community affiliation.
Odds against Kejriwal
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The cynical explanation for Kejriwal’s candidature is that he is contesting from Varanasi knowing he can’t win. His real goal, say knowing pundits, is the publicity that this contest will bring the Aam Admi Party in the forthcoming general elections. They are almost certainly wrong. All Kejriwal’s public ventures have been unlikely gambles, from the Anna Hazare fast that brought India’s political class to its knees in 2011, to the AAP coup in the Delhi elections. In every case he has played to win; it’s unlikely that the David-Goliath tableau he has set up in Varanasi is any different.
This is not to say he will win, but merely to note that Kejriwal’s track record as a political impressario suggests he is a contender because he sees an unlikely route to victory. The vote shares in Varanasi’s 2009 election give Modi’s challenger something to work with; Kejriwal has evidently decided that he can make those stars align. Already he has begun to taunt Modi with his decision to contest a second safe seat in his home state, Gujarat. What, he asks, is Modi afraid of?
The odds against Kejriwal winning are formidable. There’s a very real chance that he could be rolled over, not just defeated, but thrashed. If things go wrong Kejriwal could be beaten into third or fourth place. Should he be comfortably owned by Modi, the AAP’s credibility as an insurgent political alternative to mainstream parties would be seriously damaged.
He is willing to run that risk because an improbable win over Modi in Varanasi would be a game-changing prize: it would fatally damage Modi’s bid to become a pan-Indian leader, humble the BJP in Hinduism’s holiest pilgrim town and, not incidentally, make Arvind Kejriwal the most dangerous man in Indian politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.