Modi's winning margin may be pared in Varanasi

Modi's winning margin may be pared in Varanasi
Gujarat state Chief Minister and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Primeministerial Candidate, Narendra Modi gestures during a meeting in Gandhinagar, some 30 kms from Ahmedabad on May 13, 2014. Modi remained present in the meeting of BJP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Gandhinagar.

INDIA - Opposition front runner Narendra Modi could see a slimmer margin of victory in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, following a last-minute surge in support for the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress yesterday as voting ended in India's multi-staged national polls.

This could take some of the gloss off widespread talk that Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are cruising to victory in a so-called wave election.

"It is not like Mr Modi is going to sweep Varanasi and win by a massive margin of 200,000 or 300,000 as expected. It does not seem to be that kind of situation now," said Professor Chauthi Ram Yadav of the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi.

Varanasi, a spiritual centre for Hindus, has become a high-profile battleground between Mr Modi, who has his roots in Hindu nationalism, and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist turned politician who is contesting his first parliamentary election. Congress fielded local politician Ajai Rai at a later stage.

The BJP has had a hold over the Varanasi seat for the most part of two decades. It lost the seat to the Congress in 2004, but won it back in 2009 by a slim margin.

On the eve of polling, a prominent Muslim body, the Mufti Board of Varanasi, came out in support of Mr Kejriwal, who has travelled from village to village in the last month to woo voters.

The Congress, too, has made a last push for support. The party's vice-president Rahul Gandhi drew massive crowds during his road show last Friday, even as Mr Modi was denied permission to hold a meeting in the city by the local authorities who cited security risks. Dominantly Hindu, Varanasi has both rural and urban areas, as well as a sizeable Muslim community which makes up around 20 per cent of the population.

"About 80 to 90 per cent of the Muslim support is going to Mr Kejriwal," noted Prof Yadav.

Mr Kejriwal, whose party has attracted a large Muslim following in several constituencies, spoke to reporters with his forehead smeared with holy ash.

Varanasi, which voted yesterday along with 40 other constituencies in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal in the ninth and final phase of polling, saw a massive 44.7 per cent voter turnout by 3pm local time in spite of the searing heat.

This article was published on May 13 in The Straits Times.

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