VARANASI, India — For tens of millions of Hindus, Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage. Crowded with ancient temples and shrines, its streets jammed with believers and tourists, this city on the banks of the holy Ganges River is where the devout believe they attain instant salvation.
But in recent weeks Varanasi also has become the noisy battleground for India’s most-watched contest in its national elections: Two of the country’s most prominent politicians are facing off in a contest for the city’s sole parliamentary seat.
Holding aloft brooms—the symbol of the year-old Aam Aadmi, or Common Man’s, Party—and waving them in the air, thousands gathered Wednesday at a rally in the city to show support for the upstart Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-corruption firebrand who leaped into the national spotlight when he won New Delhi’s top job in a stunning upset late last year.
Kejriwal is trying to knock off the heavily favored Narendra Modi, a prime ministerial hopeful from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. Modi’s carefully crafted and well-financed campaign presents him as a can-do politician who has turned his home state of Gujarat into a haven for business and industry—and has pledged to bolster India’s growth.
Despite the national attention given to their city, most residents have distinctly local concerns: frequent electricity outages, filthy streets and the millions of tons of raw sewage that flow into the Ganges.
“Any candidate who can clean up this place has my vote,” said Manik Dev Trivedi, who works for a software company, as he picked his way past heaps of discarded food and stray dogs.
Both Modi and Kejriwal must campaign as outsiders. Neither man lives in Varanasi, a city of 1.2 million that votes on May 12 in India’s five-weeklong election process in which 814 million people are eligible to cast ballots. Parliamentary candidates can choose to contest any district, and that choice normally reflects their election strategy.
During his campaign, Modi has not played up his party’s Hindu agenda, but experts say his decision to run in this holy city is meant to send a clear message to all voters about his commitment to the BJP’s brand of religious nationalism, which emphasizes India’s Hindu identity.
The BJP also promises good governance at a time when the ruling Congress party has been plagued by repeated scandals, and its leader Rahul Gandhi has generally failed to inspire the public, leaving many analysts to predict that the BJP will likely emerge with the largest number of seats in the elections when results are announced on May 16.
Across Varanasi, Modi’s face is plastered on posters and billboards, and the lotus flower, the party’s symbol, is everywhere, suspended above major intersections and hanging from street lights. Hordes of party activists wearing saffron caps or shawls roam the streets, confident in his triumph.
“Modi has a vision for this country. His victory from Varanasi is a given, and he will win with a huge margin,” said Tilak Raj Mishra, one of his supporters at the party’s election headquarters in the city, an enormous portrait of Modi, festooned with marigold garlands, on the wall behind him.
The race in Varanasi is also drawing attention because it lies in India’s most populous—and arguably most politically important—state of Uttar Pradesh. With 200 million people, a comparable population to Brazil, the state is allotted 80 seats in the 543-seat in the lower house of parliament. It has a proud political legacy, too: Eight of India’s 14 prime ministers have hailed from Uttar Pradesh.
“The sheer size of the state and its population ensures that the party that holds sway in UP will be the kingmaker,” said Chauthi Ram Yadav, a professor at the city’s Banaras Hindu University.
But some Indians are worried about Modi’s rise—particularly Muslims, who make up about 18 percent of the state’s population.
His image has been tainted by the 2002 sectarian violence that ripped through his home state of Gujarat, killing nearly 1,000 Muslims. Modi, who has been chief minister of the state since 2001, is widely seen as doing little to stop the violence, and his fiercest critics have accused him of organizing the bloodshed.
“As a Muslim, how can I vote for Modi?” asked Tahir Sheikh, a Varanasi college student.
Modi denies playing a role in the riots, and has never apologized or expressed remorse for them. In December, under pressure to speak about the violence that has become a focal point of his candidacy, Modi spoke of his “anguish” over the bloodshed. The carefully worded statement appeared designed to convey that he had nothing to apologize for.
True to his anti-establishment image, Kejriwal decided to run for office in Varanasi simply to face off against Modi, whom he accuses of favoring big business.
Since his emergence on the national stage, Kejriwal has quickly gained a reputation of an erratic rabble-rouser. He has led protests and hunger strikes against government corruption. After just 49 days as New Delhi’s chief minister, Kejriwal quit, claiming that the entrenched political system prevented him from carrying out real reforms. Instead, he said he would invest his energy in the national elections.
His campaign here has focused more on local issues, and he has promised to build an effective sewage system, clean up the river and support the city’s legendary sari weavers.
In the Madanpura neighborhood, a warren of alleys flanked by buildings home to thousands of impoverished, mostly Muslim, weavers, the overriding concern is about declining demand for hand-woven saris amid a flood of cheaper mass-produced polyester versions.
“In the last decade, the weavers have taken a beating,” said Mohammed Azhar as he sat at a low table, using colored pencils to create floral sari patterns. “What can these politicians do for us?”