Rahul Gandhi holds massive show of strength in Varanasi

Rahul Gandhi holds massive show of strength in Varanasi

Mr Gandhi’s road show in Varanasi is a sort of “tit-for-tat” event after Mr Modi had addressed a huge rally in his constituency of Amethi, also in Uttar Pradesh.

By Sonny Abraham

Published: Sat 10 May 2014, 12:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 5:51 PM

Thousands of people thronged the streets as Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi staged a massive road show in Varanasi—the constituency of opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi—on the last day of campaigning for India’s Lok Sabha elections today.

Varanasi and 40 other constituencies will vote on May 12 in the ninth and final phase of polling in the Parliamentary elections. They include 18 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, 17 in Bihar and six in West Bengal.

The contest in Varanasi is the most keenly watched in these elections, with Mr Modi—placed as the front-runner in the race to become India’s next Prime MInister by most opinion polls—pitted against Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal and local Congress leader Ajay Rai as his main rivals.

Wearing a Nehru cap in Congress colours, Mr Gandhi, 43, stood in an open vehicle alongside Mr Rai, other Congress leaders and several security men, and waved to the crowds as the road show began in the Gol Gadda area of the ancient city and wound its way to Lanka Chowk, just outside the gates of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), where he will address a meeting.

Apart from the crowds on the streets, waving Congress flags and banners, hundreds of people could be seen on the terraces of buildings on either side of the streets, trying to catch a glimpse of Mr Gandhi, who was accompanied by senior Congress leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik, Rashid Alvi and Raj Babbar.

The Congress got a boost as the family of the late shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan joined the road show and played for the party. The family had earlier refused to sign Mr Modi’s nomination papers as proposers and appeared to have decided not to take any sides during these elections.

Mr Azad was all confidence as he said that his party had been able to muster the support of all sections of voters in the constituency. “We are hundred percent confident of a win,” he said.

Mr Gandhi’s road show in Varanasi is a sort of “tit-for-tat” event after Mr Modi, 63, had addressed a huge rally in his constituency of Amethi, also in Uttar Pradesh, on May 5 in an apparent breach of an unwritten code under which top leaders of parties normally avoid campaigning in each other’s constituencies.

Mr Modi had used the occasion to mount his most scathing attack yet on the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family, which led a bitter war of words between the two sides which is still continuing. The plans for Mr Gandhi to campaign in Varanasi were hastily drawn up by the Congress after that onslaught, sources said.

Today’s road show by Mr Gandhi is also being held against the background of a major controversy after Varanasi district magistrate and returning officer Pranjal Yadav had, on May 7, denied permission to Mr Modi to hold a rally in the Beniyabagh area of the city and stage a road show on May 8.

The district authorities had, among other things, cited security issues for the decision and the “sensitivity” of the Beniyabagh area, which has a huge Muslim population, as the reasons for their decision.

The denial led to a major stand-off between the BJP and the Election Commission, with the party accusing the constitutional body of inaction in the matter. The Commission, on its part, denied any bias and said the district authorities had acted on professional advice.

The BJP was angered even more by the fact that the authorities had given permission for Mr Gandhi’s road show and for meetings by other parties, including the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose leader Arvind Kejriwal is contesting against Mr Modi in Varanasi, and the Samajwadi Party (SP), the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh.

As Mr Gandhi’s road show passed through the Beniyabagh area, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told mediapersons in Delhi that the fact that the Congress leader was allowed to campaign in the area and Mr Modi was not showed that the authorities had acted in a partisan manner.

“It is a big blot on Indian democracy that the Prime Ministerial candidate of a national party was not allowed to campaign in his own constituency,” he said.

Mr Kejriwal had also held a huge road show in the city yesterday and was due to stage another one today, and it was clear that the people of Varanasi—known for its weaving industry—were enjoying the national and international attention, though unsure whether it would make any difference to their lives.

Mr Modi had staged a road show in Varanasi in a massive show of strength on April 24, when he had filed his nomination from the constituency.

He is also contesting from Vadodara in Gujarat, where polling was held on April 30.

On May 8, after he was denied permission to hold another road show and address a rally at Beniyabagh, Mr Modi had driven in a motorcade from Lanka Chowk to the BJP office in the city, which had turned into another spectacular road show with the four kilometre drive taking more than three hours because of the crowds that turned out to show their support to him.

The first phase of polling in the elections was held on April 7. Counting of votes for all 543 Lok Sabha constituencies, as well as for Legislative Assembly elections in four states—Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim—and Assembly bye-elections will be taken up on May 16, and all results are expected by that evening.

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