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March 16, 2014 10:05 pm
Narendra Modi, the Indian prime ministerial hopeful from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, is to run for parliament from the sacred pilgrimage town of Varanasi, a choice laden with symbolic meaning for his party’s rightwing Hindu base.
The fielding of Mr Modi, who is currently chief minister of Gujarat, from Varanasi is also expected to give a boost to the BJP in the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 parliamentary seats – more than any other Indian state – and is crucial to the BJP prospects.
Varanasi, a holy city on the banks of the Ganges, where devout Hindus have traditionally cremated their dead, is considered a “safe” constituency for the BJP, which has won the seat in all but one of India’s parliamentary elections since 1996.
But Mr Modi’s choice of Varanasi for his maiden bid for parliament – and drive to become prime minister – is also intended to enthuse rightwing Hindu groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and its affiliated organisations, that have often provided the BJP’s grassroots manpower for elections.
On the campaign trail, Mr Modi, a long-term member of the RSS, has avoided any mention of the BJP’s traditional core issues – such as the role of Hinduism, and the legal privileges of Muslims, in Indian society – to focus exclusively on his record of economic development.
However, running from Varanasi is intended to “buttress Modi’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) leanings in the eyes of diehards who may have been confounded by his frequent talk of development and modernism,” The Economic Times wrote on Sunday.
In one tweet after the announcement, Mr Modi invoked the blessings of “Mother Ganges” and Kashi Vishwanath, a sacred temple dedicated to Lord Shiva for his mission to “create a strong, prosperous and vibrant India”.
In a second tweet, he wrote, “grateful to the party for giving me the opportunity to contest the election from the holy city of Varanasi. An honour to contest from Varanasi.”
Analysts say Mr Modi’s candidacy from Varanasi will help the BJP performance in the Hindi heartland, including many of the seats adjacent to the sacred pilgrimage city, which did not go to the BJP in the last elections, and in neighbouring Bihar.
The strength of the BJP’s performance in Uttar Pradesh will be crucial to its overall prospects of forming the government. But while the Congress is very weak in the state, the BJP faces a formidable electoral rival in Mayawati, the so-called “Dalit Queen”, who leads the Bahujan Samaj party, which has its core among those lowest on India’s caste ladder.
If there is a Modi wave across the country, then why is Narendra Modi snatching the ‘safe seat’ of Varanasi from MM [Murli Manohar] Joshi
- Indian commentator asked on Twitter
Mr Modi’s Varanasi candidacy was not without resistance. The incumbent BJP MP from the city, Murli Manohar Joshi, fought bitterly to retain his seat, prompting some bemusement on social media.
“If there is a Modi wave across the country, then why is Narendra Modi snatching the ‘safe seat’ of Varanasi from MM Joshi,” one commentator asked on Twitter.
But another predicted that Mr Modi’s candidacy from the sacred Hindu city would “send a surge of new energy thru (sic) BJP cadres. The man is a master of timing.”
Meanwhile on Sunday, Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi party, indicated in a rally in Bangalore that he might go head to head against Mr Modi, by running for parliament from Varanasi.
Mr Kejriwal defeated Delhi’s incumbent, three-term chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, in her own constituency in the capital’s local legislative assembly elections in December.
But taking on Mr Modi, who is riding on a wave of national popularity, would be a challenge of an entirely different magnitude for Mr Kejriwal, a former tax inspector turned social activist. Mr Kejriwal said his decision on the matter wasn’t final and would depend on whether local people supported him.
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