PRIYANKA — Will she, won’t she? Big question for Varanasi


Prem Chandran


A BIG QUESTION now is whether Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would contest the Lok Sabha polls from Varanasi, the seat held by Prime Minister Modi in the outgoing Lok Sabha, and from where he’s set to face the electorate for a second time. Priyanka returned to the theme two days ago, reiterating she’s willing to enter the fray — if party chief Rahul Gandhi asks her to. A week more is left for filing of nominations for Varanasi, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and the last word from Priyanka, or the Congress leadership, is awaited. Speculations are also that PM Modi might contest from a second seat, this time from Delhi. The BJP leadership is tight-lipped about this possibility too.
If Priyanka Gandhi enters the fray in Varanasi, PM Modi might face the heat in a spectacular manner. The Nehru family has a fan-following across Uttar Pradesh, and this does not limit itself to the powerful yet numerically weak Brahmin community. Her feminine charms will be an added strength. Also, she’s new to electoral politics and still could carry the youths with her. 
The over 2.5lakh-strong Brahmins in the constituency and the influential Bhumihars numbering around 1.5lakh were largely supporters of the BJP in recent times. Modi won over five lakh votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Last time, his nearest opponent was Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP, who garnered over 2 lakh votes while the Congress nominee came third with about 75,000 votes.
Yet, If Priyanka enters the fray, large segments of the Brahmins can be expected to back her. They are generally not happy with Modi’s governance. Modi, on his part, has less of leeway with Brahimin vote bases. At a perception level, Brahimins are the main challengers to him even within the BJP — Murli Manohar Joshi being in the lead role — and also at the intellectual level, where too Brahmins are more energetically taking on Modi. The way they take on him is by blaming him for “poor governance” and highlighting his non-secular credentials. They can, as a collective, be trusted to needle Modi in Varanasi too. Modi has stated in so many words that Rahul Gandhi and others are targeting him personally because he’s from a backward community. But Mayawati is among those who have called Modi’s “bluff” — that the BC title on him is a self-imposed one; and that Modi is a “fake BC” – his community having been included in the BC list some 20 years ago.
The disappointment of Brahmins in UP could be on many counts. For one, a respectable Brahmin leader like MM Joshi was denied ticket this time, which would virtually end his parliamentary career on the ground he’s well past the age limit of 75. This is the limit fixed for BJP leaders to hold public posts after Modi took power. Joshi is 85. A crest-fallen Joshi, professor by profession, was courted by Modi’s detractors to field him as Independent supported by the Opposition parties against Modi in Varanasi. Joshi was in half a mind to do so, but the RSS leadership quickly intervened and the idea was not taken forward. Joshi represented Kanpur in the outgoing Lok Sabha. It goes to someone else.
This time, another major challenge to Modi would come from Muslims, who number more than 2lakh in Varanasi. A section of them, Shias, was favourably disposed to the BJP and Modi, and they might have voted for him in the last polls. Many of them were engaged in the spinning units, and Modi had promised them help too. How much help they got in the last five years is worth a check. A Muslim consolidation against Modi could be expected in normal course. Total voters in the constituency are of 17 lakh, and there is scope for manoeuvring. The Yadavs, traditional backers of the Samajwadi Party, and the Dalits, who back Mayawati, are also prominent segments of the electorate, but do not have, between themselves, the strength to take on Modi or the BJP in Varanasi. Nothing goes to show these two segments would back Modi in the present political context in UP. The last time, Amit Shah camped in Uttar Pradesh for months before the Lok Sabha polls to strengthen the bases of the BJP in the state and also to pave the way for a grand Modi success in Varanasi. Now, Shah is pre-occupied with party matters at the national level. 
Under the circumstances, if Modi is defeated by the collective strengths of those who are opposed to him at political and personal levels, the Opposition will have their last laugh, having stolen the thunder. This is not very impossible, though, as anything could happen in elections. Modi, on the other hand, can have an easy win from almost any constituency in Gujarat, especially after the inauguration of the Patel Statue, which satisfied the Patel pride. His selection of a religiously high-voltage constituency outside of his state, Varanasi in UP, was a good step forward to reinforce his credentials as a leader of national stature. Modi cannot afford to return to Gujarat for a fight now. It would be tantamount to taking a few steps backward. Delhi could be a good choice this time around, and the powerful trading community which is the mainstay of the BJP there could be depended on to elect him with a huge margin.  But, Delhi is also where Arvind Kejriwal swept the polls, winning 67 of the 70 seats in 2015, which saw both the Congress and the BJP scurrying for cover. 
Notably, in the past five years, a safe guess is that Modi hardly took care of his constituency. As PM, his mind was fixated on much else. And, it would appear that the PM had no pre-planning as to how to build the tempo for the approaching LS polls. Pulwama came to his help, after the BJP’s disastrous show in the five-state assembly polls. He did something in Balakot, and Pakistan received a jerk from which it took weeks for Imran Khan to recover. This, even though nothing much might have happened in Balakot. IAF fighter jets travelled upto 80km deep inside the Pakistani territory, up close to the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, virtually unchallenged at the dead of the night. Pakistan couldn’t hide this embarrassment. The Pakistani military was caught napping for most part, though they scrambled their fighter jets and attempted a feeble resistance. The next day, they compensated for their failure by drawing in an array of F-16 fighter jets, and India proved it was not well-prepared to face this response from Pakistan, which came in a jiffy, unlike the long-period of preparation India did after Pulwama.
In the Hindi belt at least, Modi fights this polls by tom-toming about Balakot, and this might have a positive effect on BJP’s vote share. He can claim credit for bringing in the pension scheme for farmers and for the unorganised labour, this too at the last minute, just when his government was about to sing its swan song. All through the five years, the PM vacillated; if anything, he extended minor support to the farm sector. He woke up after he found the Congress was taking the wind out of his sails. Kamal Nath’s loan waiver announcement came like a bolt from the blue for Modi and the BJP. What Modi could not do, the Congress did. Modi’s answer, belated as it was, came in the form of provisions in the last budget presented by Arun Jaitley, announcing the pension schemes. Modi facilitated immediate disbursal of the first instalment of the pensions for farmers, as elections were already round the corner. Why did he not demonstrate the same speed with respect to his governance in other fields for the past five years?
True, Modi did many good things. He helped the poor through the Ayushman Bharat health scheme, gave solid health insurance cover to every poor family across the country. He introduced a housing scheme which helped millions of the homeless. He gave LPG connections to poor families free of cost. But, Congress governments too did many such things in the past. It was the Sonia-Manmohan team that introduced the subsidised rice scheme, with the result the poor across the country is laughing their way through cheap provision for rice — of a quantity more than what’s required for their families. The Congress government had also introduced the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is enlivening the rural India with some income for every poor family. Such schemes helped keep poverty away. 
So, what did Modi do in special? A surgical strike, perhaps. But, AK Antony claimed a few days ago that there had been three surgical strikes of the same kind during his tenure as defence minister but these were not matters to be publicized and hence his silence all along. Might be, who knows! Fact is, we do not know much about the surgical strikes that happened during Modi’s time too. Pakistan has a habit of telling lies, and remains in denial mode, as it did in relation to the presence of Osama bin Laden near its military complex. Reason why even when Pakistanis speak the truth, or denies anything happened in Balakot, we tend to disbelieve them, even PM Imran Khan. 
Modi’s problem in this round of Lok Sabha polls is that he no more seems to hold the Modi Magic which was so very evident in the last polls. His jet-set campaign had a novelty about it in 2014. And, he had the gift of the gab. Together, it worked wonders for him and the BJP. This time, the people are used to Modi’s styles. He has lost some credibility too, like in the promise he made last time about ploughing back the black money from secret tax havens and putting them into the bank accounts of the poor in India. Lots of people thought something of the sort could happen. Now, everybody knows Modi has a penchant for bluff and bluster. He may be taken less seriously this time.
Modi’s strength in this round is that he has matured as a leader at the national level, and by virtue of him being the PM for the past five years, and having conducted himself with some sense of responsibility. Overall, he has proven himself to be a dependable leader. He challenged China at Doklam. He gave some pin-pricks to Pakistan. In the minimum, unlike Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi who withdrew to their shells after the Mumbai terror attacks, Modi proved he meant business. He took on Pakistan, and in a careful way also as to ensure India’s offensive did not lead up to a war in the run-up to the Parliament polls here. He kicked Pakistan in its ass and proved a point. Good, he did something. But, may be, another leader in his place might have acted with more of courage. 
Rafale is before the court now. Yet, it is safe to suspect that Anil Ambani was given a helping hand possibly in return for a helping hand from him to the BJP. Or there could be more than what meets the eye. The court will go into the merits and demerits of these. A PM intervening in the negotiations between the defence ministry and the Rafale – or with the French authorities  — by itself may be seen as a normal affair with every government. The PM is the elected leader of the nation. He has the right to intervene in any government-related matter. Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi would have done the same. The Congress or Rahul Gandhi cannot whip up the electorate’s mood on all these counts. Eminently, the Bofors is before us, though investigations into it did not help unravel the secrets. All what we know, still, is that there was a pronounced Italian connection to the huge payoffs by way of commission. With this in the backdrop, how much dust can Rahul Gandhi raise on this count in this round?
Modi might or might not return to power after this polls. He failed to energise the mood of the masses, and this would mean a splintered verdict and possibly a hung parliament or a hotch-potch coalition at the helm for a while.


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