Two major political developments panned out on April 25 in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's parliamentary constituency Varanasi, that have changed the political discourse in a big way. One was PM Modi's mega road show, that ran across 8 km; and two, Indian National Congress's (INC's) decision of not fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi, that too after she dropped enough hints indicating her willingness.
On Friday, April 26, PM Modi filed his nomination papers from Varanasi. The constituency will go to polls on May 19 during the last phase of the general elections. His road show the previous day had charged up workers not only in the constituency, but also in other parts of the state. In a constituency of about 1.7 million voters, 700,000 people had flocked to the roads of the city to watch or participate in the rally. Obviously, not all of them would be voters of Varanasi, but they carried home a big political message: The tilt is not against them.
Meanwhile, INC is battling its own challenge. The party initially saw a great potential in creating a surge for itself in eastern UP - the remotest and poorest part of the state - but couldn't keep it up. In 2009, marking one of the best performances in three decades, Congress sent six MPs (27 from entire UP) from this region. As per party insiders, the Congress candidates are giving a tough fight in Khushinagar, Salempur, Maharajganj, Mirzapur, Pratapgarh, Sant Kabir Nagar and Basti constituencies. When Priyanka Gandhi joined Congress as General Secretary and was specifically assigned the task of mobilising voters in eastern UP, the idea was to get her to contest from Varanasi and camp there in order to boost the party's prospects in these constituencies.
However, not having Priyanka Gandhi vote contest from Varanasi could prove counterproductive in the other constituencies as well. On Thursday afternoon, Congress fielded Ajay Rai - a three-time MLA and former BJP leader - from Varanasi. In 2014, Ajay Rai had come in at third spot with roughly 75,000 votes, and was forced to forfeit his deposit. It is learnt that Congress President Rahul Gandhi vetoed the idea of fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi to challenge PM Modi. His logic was that it is a bad idea for big leaders to lose. But the move may well prove to be damaging.
Meanwhile, a day later family loyalist Sam Pitroda came in front of cameras and stated that it was Priyanka's decision to sidestep, as she wanted to focus on campaign. Another problem is that rumours of her willingness to contest were started by Priyanka Gandhi herself and her party colleagues never let those go. This doesn't boost the morale of Congress workers, especially when the party has been out of power in UP for more than three decades and is finding it tough to wrest a comeback at the national level. Bad logic, Mr Pitroda. But let's live with it.
Even if Priyanka Gandhi had contested and lost against PM Modi, the fight would have boosted her image as a serious contender. Both the Gandhi siblings are considered as in-training, and shielded or protected. The chance to break that image has again gone. No pollster thought Priyanka Gandhi would win in Varanasi, but getting into the contest might have placed her in the league of street fighters and shrewd politicians. 2014 saw two such challengers in Arvind Kejriwal and Smriti Irani. They might have lost the polls, but their stature as politicians improved.
Meanwhile, on Friday, before heading to the collectorate to file his nomination, a confident PM Modi told his workers that he will not come to campaign for himself in Varanasi; they will have to ensure that he wins from every booth. In absence of big names, the challenger of Varanasi came in Tej Bahadur Yadav-the dismissed constable of BSF-became Samajwadi Party's last minute nomine. He may not win, but will gather some eyeballs. Hope he will make full use of these 20 days of electoral battle.