AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal leaves for Varanasi from New Delhi Railway Station. Kejriwal is up against BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and is expected to stay in Varanasi until the constituency goes to polls on May 12.
Hindustan Times—Hindustan Times via Getty Images
April 18, 2014 5:08 AM EDT

Congested and crisscrossed by narrow and often dark lanes, Varanasi’s air is a mix of wood smoke and incense. The green-brown Ganges, the busy colorful bazaars, the morning bathers and the nightly oil lamps make this picturesque place a draw for tourists from all over. There’s a timeless quality in this northern Indian city, said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

But this month, the peace has been rudely shattered. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi decided to contest from Varanasi, and Arvind Kejriwal, chief of the newly-formed antigraft Aam Aadmi Party decided to take him head on, things in Varanasi have been as earthly as they can possibly be.

For the city’s 1.5 million voters, severely polarized on the basis of caste and religion, it’s going to be a tough call.

Varanasi is a bastion of Hinduism and with around 3,500,000 Brahmin votes has traditionally been a stronghold of the BJP. For the last 20 years, with the exception of 2004, they have won this seat. For Modi, who has elbowed aside member of Parliament and party old timer Murli Manohar Joshi to enter the fray, winning Varanasi should be a breeze — at least until Kejriwal decided to begin a David vs Goliath face-off.

While Modi can count on Varanasi’s staunch Hindu Brahmin population, Kejriwal, if he can position his campaign well, can appeal to a entire cross section of voters — the city’s 400,000 Muslims, for instance.

“Here is a person who is at the forefront of an anti corruption movement, former chief minister of Delhi, a person who has been highlighting issues relating to crony capitalism and arguing there’s little to differentiate between the [incumbent] Congress and BJP when it comes to policies,” points out Delhi-based independent political analyst, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. “The fact he is personally contesting Modi, irrespective of the outcome, is very significant in itself.”

Kejriwal says he is not much after the seat as the platform that campaigning provides him. “I am not here to become a Member of Parliament. If that was my intent, I would have chosen a safe seat like most other politicians are doing,” he told a rally in Varanasi recently.

Meanwhile, the incumbent Congress party’s candidate, local politician Aay Rai, has been campaigning in the shadow of his counterparts. If Kejriwal eats into Modi’s vote bank, and if the regional Samajwadi party goes through with a proposal to withdraw its candidate and transfer support to Rai, then Congress just might pull it off. Either way, in Varanasi Kejriwal has the power to dent the spectacular win Modi envisioned for himself.

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