VARANASI, India: As he contemplated the vast crowds that greeted Narendra Modi in India’s holiest city, the would-be prime minister’s top aide proclaimed the wave of support for his boss had become a “tsunami.”
Rather than deny the opposition’s assertion, the governing Congress party shot back that tsunamis leave a trail of death and destruction.
The salvo was typical of the war of words being waged in Varanasi, one of the final contests in the world’s biggest election and whose combatants include two of India’s most talked-about politicians.
If his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plan comes off, Modi will emerge next week as Varanasi’s member of parliament and India’s prime minister.
But opposing him is anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal, who six months ago prevented the BJP from taking charge of Delhi’s state assembly in a stunning electoral debut.
The expectation this time is of a win for Modi in Monday’s poll, the last day of voting in the whole six-week election. National results are due next Friday.
“Everyone in Varanasi, everyone in India, knows that Modi is the frontrunner,” said T. P. Singh, a politics professor at the city’s Banaras Hindu University.
“The people of Varanasi are excited that they won’t just be voting for their MP [member of parliament]but also for their PM [prime minister],” he added.
A sacred city around 420 miles (680 kilometers) east of Delhi, Varanasi is a perfect platform for Modi to present himself as a sound administrator and proud Hindu.
The city on the banks of the river Ganges teems with temples and traffic, and it is regarded as particularly auspicious for Hindus to be cremated by the holy waters. Boys play cricket only yards from the burning bodies.
“It doesn’t so much feel like the BJP has sent me here but rather that Mother Ganga has summoned me,” said the 63-year-old Modi, who elbowed a sitting BJP veteran aside in order to stand.
More than 100,000 people lined the streets as Modi crawled through on an open-top truck, prompting top aide Amit Shah to forecast a “tsunami . . . that will wipe out” his rivals.
Modi’s pitch has been to revive a city whose famous silk industry is fighting for survival. A BJP “vision document” includes pledges to clean up the filthy Ganges and make Varanasi an education hub.
The BJP’s national secretary, Rameshwar Chaurasia, says Modi’s candidacy should also have a knock-on effect in neighboring states.
“Democracy is a game of numbers and it was felt Modiji [ji is an Indian honorific]would change the dynamics of at least 59 seats,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Uttar Pradesh state, which is home to Varanasi, accounts for 80 out of 543 seats in the parliament, making it by far the most important state.