VARANASI/JAYAPUR : The election may be drawing to a close but in Varanasi, campaigning has reached fever pitch. The constituency from which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting again goes to the polls on Sunday, and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including Amit Shah, Sushma Swaraj and Piyush Goyal, as well as Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav are on the ground canvassing for their candidates.

For Ranjit Nishad, an 18-year-old boatman on the Ganga in Varanasi, Modi’s presence is not just a matter of pride but also a source of hope. “The ghats are clean, we get 24x7 power and the law and order situation has improved. Things have changed for the better in the last five years. But two things remain—no jobs, and the Ganga is still polluted," he said.

In Varanasi, there is a sense that BJP should do more; there is nothing stopping the party from fulfilling its promises on jobs and a clean Ganga as it forms the government at the centre and in the state. Varanasi is unlikely to pick another candidate to represent them for the next five years, but there is a feeling that it’s time for Modi to “transform the lives of people by providing employment".

Varanasi is considered a comfortable seat for BJP, which has won in every election since 1991, except for the 2004 poll when Congress took the lead.

In the 2014 general election, Modi contested from two seats, Varanasi in UP and Vadodara in Gujarat. He won in Vadodara with a margin of over 500,000 votes and Varanasi by 370,000 votes. Modi chose to represent Varanasi, a seat that senior BJP leader and former Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi vacated for him. The other star candidate last time was Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, who came in second. This time, there was a lot of speculation about Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contesting against Modi, but the party declared another candidate.

“Varanasi is a VVIP constituency. We’re proud that the holy city has given the country a prime minister. There is no doubt that Modi has done more for Varanasi than any other MP in the last 70 years, but that’s also why we now expect more of him," said Om Prakash Maurya, a 57-year-old Benarasi sari shop owner.

Nearly 40km away is Jayapur, a village which was largely unknown till 2014 when Modi decided to adopt it under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana for social development to turn it into a “model village". Three villages from the seat were adopted—Jayapur, Nagepur and Kakrahia—over five years. Jayapur has solar lights and well-laid roads but a high school, hospital and skilling centre are not in place.

“Modi is ‘nishchal’, untainted. Nobody can question his leadership. It is because of Modi that we have a khadi unit in the village and women can earn a living for themselves and for their families," said Kanchan Patel (24), who works at the khadi unit that was set up in the village in 2016. “We want the PM to visit the village again. People still have to go to other states for jobs. We want our family members to be able to stay here and find work," said Patel, who earns up to 3,000 a month.

For the opposition, the Congress and the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party combine, the lack of employment opportunities and development is the main plank. Congress candidate Ajay Rai, who placed third in the 2014 poll with just over 75,000 votes, casts Modi as an ‘outsider’, and says the BJP is getting complacent as it has held the seat for a large part of three decades.

“Since he is not from Varanasi, Modi does not understand the people and the city. The Vishwanath corridor being built by demolishing temples is just one example. There has been no improvement in the sewage system, there is lack of clean drinking water," he says.

Some voters feel real issues of jobs and inclusivity are lost in all the noise. “Both sides just make personal attacks. Discussions on politics, jobs and development are not happening," said Laxmikant Pathak (60), an English teacher.

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