Mr Narendra Modi’s decision to contest elections in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi appears calculated to play up his religious credentials as a Hindu nationalist, but it might not be a total walkover.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal, who defeated political heavyweight Sheila Dikshit in the Delhi state polls, has indicated that he too will stand in Varanasi.
And local candidate Mukhtar Ansari, who has his own party, Quami Ekta Dal, and lost to Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last election by a small margin, has said he will not just stand but will also support the strongest candidate against Mr Modi. Mr Kejriwal told a group of Muslims on Tuesday: “I was reading in some newspapers that it will be a symbolic fight and it is Modi who will win. I am going not only to fight but I am going to defeat him.”
The AAP is also fielding newcomers against political heavyweights of the ruling Congress and BJP across the country as part of its election strategy.
Varanasi is in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh that has the largest representation in Parliament, with 80 seats. It is one of India’s oldest cities and a place where Hindus go to cremate their dead. Hindu pilgrims also travel there to take a bath in the Ganga, or Ganges, River to wash away sins.
But the city also has a substantial Muslim population: More than 20 per cent of its voters are Muslims.
Varanasi has been stalked by terrorism, with bomb blasts in 2006 killing 28 people and injuring more than 100, while another blast in 2010 outside a Hindu temple killed two and injured more than 30. Indian Muslim terror outfit Indian Mujahideen was blamed for the attacks.
The BJP has had a hold over the seat for the most part of two decades. It lost the seat to the Congress in 2004, but in the 2009 elections, former education minister Murli Manohar Joshi of BJP won by a small margin of around 17,000 votes over local Muslim strongman Mukhtar Ansari.
“The purpose of fielding Modi (in) Varanasi was to polarise the voters along religious (lines)… There is also internal bickering in BJP in Varanasi so it is definitely not a safe seat,” said Dr Aftab Alam, associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.
But political analyst Sudhir Panwar of Lucknow University said: “A lot depends on how much religious polarisation takes place. If the Hindu votes divide, he (Modi) could be in trouble. At the last election, BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi won by only around 17,000 votes. It depends on how well Mr Kejriwal and Mr Mukhtar Ansari do.”
Mr Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, is criticised for presiding over one of the worst episodes of Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, in Gujarat state where he is Chief Minister, in which mostly Muslims were killed.
But he is also feted for turning the state into an economic success.
So far, Mr Modi, in his campaign, has not made any mention of Hindu nationalism, focusing instead on development and strong governance.
His decision to stand in Varanasi, announced last Saturday, has again brought to the fore the controversial politician’s image as theposter boy for Hindutva, a brand of far-right Hindu nationalism.
Analysts say the move is aimed at consolidating Hindu votes across the country with the kind of identity politics that is the hallmark of the BJP.
Mr Modi is also contesting a seat in Gujarat, but will have to give up one seat if he wins both. This is a practice common among leading politicians. Many believe if he wins, he will retain Varanasi.
“Varanasi has symbolism because, after all, Modi and BJP stand for Hindu nationalist politics and Varanasi is the greatest seat of Hinduism. They want to send that explicit message to the country that in spite of the rhetoric about agenda for development, Modi stands for Hindu nationalism,” said Mr Panwar. “Definitely it will have an impact.”
At the same time, the Muslim vote is most likely to fracture, with the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party too making a play for the Muslim vote.
“The scenario in Uttar Pradesh is that the Muslims are looking to the Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress,” said Dr Alam.
The battle for Varanasi is expected to be closely watched, although many see the odds stacked in favour of Mr Modi, who is leading all opinion polls.
The BJP maintained that it was not playing the religion card, instead maintaining that the city would vote for Mr Modi and his development agenda.