India's Varanasi to witness epic battle
It is a "David versus Goliath" - that's how a young Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party (AAP), supporter Anuradha Baruah describes the battle of Varanasi, from where Narendra Modi, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for India's next prime minister, is contesting the country's upcoming election.
Baruah was one of the participants at a rally in which former Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, of the AAP, announced his candidature for the polls. She would like to believe that with this announcement, David's sling has been put in motion.
Goliath or not, the enormity of "Brand Modi" is definitely there to see in the ancient holy city of Varanasi. It's a stronghold of the BJP and supercharged with expectations that it is going to elect the country's next prime minister.
Modi has promised to bring development to the state on the lines of Gujarat, one of India's most industrialised states, where he has been in power as chief minister since 2001.
BJP supporters believe that the Gujarat model is worth replicating here and most people believe that voting for the powerful Hindu nationalist Modi would usher in that elusive development not visible in the streets.
Kejriwal says he is here to demolish that claim. Thousands of his supporters gathered at the Beniabag Park on Tuesday, agreeing with many of Kejriwal's assertions by a show of hands and raising brooms, the electoral symbol of the party.
Tukachand, 42, a grocer, believes that the country needs a drastic change. "Arvind Kejriwal is the only hope as established parties such as BJP, Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have not delivered," he says.
And Kejriwal's track record as an anti-corruption crusader makes him believe that.
The grim reality here, however, as in other parts of this eastern state of India, is that the electorate, despite woeful governance, caste the ballot on the basis of caste and community lines.
A section of the Muslim community, which constitutes over 15 percent of the electorate, is supporting Kejriwal not because he is a corruption crusader, but because he is challenging Modi.
Modi has been accused by many civil rights activists and his critics as presiding over deadly communal riots in 2002, considered as one of the worst communal violence since the partition of the country in 1947.
Meanwhile, the ruling Indian National Congress party is yet to announce their nominee for Varanasi.
Natthu, 56, a chauffeur at the Taj Hotel, is rooting for Modi but believes that Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of the Congress-led UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and the late former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is the only one who can defeat Modi in the temple town.
Kejriwal, on his two-day trip to the city, has made all the predictable moves, a dip in the holy Ganges, a visit to the Kaal Bhairon temple, known as the sheher kotwal (city sheriff) and a visit to Baba Vishwanath, a famed temple in the city.
He also faced protests from Modi supporters who waved black flags, and threw black ink and eggs at his convoy.
Kejriwal and his team played to the popular sentiment of Benares, as the city was originally known, by exhorting the crowds to chant "Har Har Mahadev," a paean to the god Lord Shiva.
He also stopped the loudspeaker during the Adhaan, or Muslim call to prayer, and wore a skull cap presented by a prominent Muslim cleric, a move that was in stark contrast with an infamous episode involving Modi where he refused to wear one.
Addressing his supporters, Kejriwal said both BJP and Congress were different sides of the same coin and were being run by the "crony capitalist agenda of corporates", a phrase he seems to have favoured. He named India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, and billionaire Gautam Adani from Gujarat, for driving the agenda of both the national parties.
Kejriwal said "corruption" and "communalism" are the two biggest failings of this country. Waving to people who thronged the rooftops in adjacent buildings around the park, who waited for hours to catch a glimpse of him, he said "Niklo baahar makaanon se, jung lado beimaano se" (essentially, "Come on the streets and fight the corrupt").
He reiterated his charge of media painting a false picture of Modi's development drive. He said media failed in its duty of asking and exposing the "truth" behind the "propaganda".
Kejriwal's decision to contest Varanasi has taken the BJP by surprise, as it announced Modi's candidature here, considering it a safe seat.
The Hindu nationalist party also believed that Modi's candidature would enthuse the cadre of the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh (UP), a politically crucial state that sends 80 seats to parliament. BJP needs to recover the lost ground in UP, where they won just 10 seats in 2009 elections.
Whether the fortunes of this ancient temple town change for the better is anybody's guess. India has 814 million registered voters this year, and 1.6 million of them will cast their ballot in Varanasi.
Anuradha's Goliath is Natthu's Hercules, and on May 16 - the day election results are announced - we will have a winner, but it is certain now that Varanasi will witness an epic fight.