VARANASI: Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to spend two days campaigning in his Lok Sabha Varanasi constituency to invisibilize the ‘threat’ from the supposed candidature of Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress announced Ajay Rai as the party candidate for this seat. It is not clear why the Congress party was feeding the speculation of a Priyanka Gandhi electoral launch from Varanasi for the past few days as she never really had considered the possibility seriously, according to well placed sources.

As a BSP leader said early on to The Citizen, “she would not have the guts” as the contest then would go wild with allegations and targeted canards.Congress president Rahul Gandhi when questioned by an excited media spoke of ‘ let the suspense continue’ or words to that effect. His sister when asked said, she would do so if her brother asked her to.

Modi is currently in Varanasi with the BJP MLAs having been summoned from all Assembly constituencies and nieghbouring districts to make his road show a success, on the lines of 2014 when Varanasi became a sea of supporters in Modi masks. He won the seat with almost six lakh votes and over 56% of the vote share.

In 2014 Aam Aadmi party chief Arvind Kejriwal was his principal contender, with scores of supporters from Delhi descending on Varanasi for his campaign. Despite the effort Kejriwal got just 20% of the vote share, and only 2 lakh votes.

Interestingly, the Congress candidate Ajay Rai had contested the elections at that time as well with just 75,000 votes. He is barely in the contest this time around, with old Congress hands in Varanasi who have shifted support since 2014 to Modi sceptical of his prowess. Will he make a dent in the upper caste vote? The question is met with sniggers, “yes perhaps he might get 40,000 this time around.”

The gathbandhan has fielded another non started in Shalini Yadav who will be contesting on Samajawadi party tikcet. Last time the BSP and SP candidates together had got about 10 per cent of the vote share, totalling a little over a lakh votes. SP leaders in Lucknow are confident of giving a good fight, as they believe that there is sufficient disaffection against Modi in Varanasi to allow Ajay Rai the opportunity to cut into the upper caste bhumiyar vote.

Interestingly, despite the impression that Varanasi is dominated by the upper castes there is a sizeable presence of other castes and communities. Their presence was felt in 2009 Lok Sabha polls where then BJP candidate Murli Manohar Joshi, also up against Ajay Rai who had contested on a SP ticket at the time, won by just 17,000 votes.

As per figures available from political parties Brahmins vote is about 2.5 lakhs that along with Bhumihars, 1.5 lakh, Kayasthas 65,000 and Vaish votes of 2 lakhs reaches a formidable 5 lakh figure. Currently reports from the ground suggest a strong consolidation of these communities behind Modi.

Muslims are reported to total 2.5-3 lakh votes in this Lok Sabha constituency. The Dalit vote is 80,000, Kurmis 1.5 lakhs, Yadavs. 1.5 lakhs. This also brings a figure of five lakhs or so voters who the gathbandhan is looking at. The Chaurasia community has about 80,000 votes that is strictly neither upper caste nor OBC.

However, there is strong polarisation cutting across communities in Varanasi that mitigates anger within some sections who had voted for Modi last time, about his failure to keep promises. It is clear though that far from making Varanasi a high profile contest, the gathbandhan and the Congress have both taken a decision to leave it to their local leaders to challenge Modi to the best of their ability which at the moment does not seem to count for much.

Varanasi has been a BJP seat since 1991 except for one term when the Congress candidate Rajesh Kumar Mishra won the seat in 2004.