Bulls will nuzzle you, fondly, if you are not afraid in the temple town of Varanasi, also called Kashi, which claims to be the oldest living city in the world. Its narrow cobbled lanes bustle with life; Halwais - sweet sellers, flower sellers and sellers of special saris of silk and brocade, artwork over which paeans have been sung - all cry out to the devout passersby. It is the citadel of one of the Hindu Trinity, Shiva, and people come here to seek divine intervention for their heart's desire to be fulfilled. Free-flowing milk, water, honey and prasadam, offerings of fruits and food, make negotiating the lanes leading up to the deity's temple tricky. It is an ancient ritual site, built, broken and rebuilt several times over the years, especially during the Middle Ages - the most recent demolition of the temple on the banks of the river Ganges having occurred sometime between 1650 and 1700. A mosque was built here, allegedly with the temple debris, known as the Gyanvapi Mosque, that included an ancient well belonging to the temple, which was a fountain of knowledge. A Hindu queen mother rebuilt the Shiva temple in 1780, the well separating the temple and the mosque. The mosque's legality is contested by hardcore Hindus, Varanasi being the seat of one of the most important Hindu deities and a Hindu bastion. Yet, the city has about 50,000 Muslim voters, particularly from the weaver community.
It is from here that Narendra Modi, the opposition BJP's prime ministerial candidate, will contest the 2014 general elections on May 12, his hope, surely, that all Hindus here will vote for him. The question the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is being asked by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is, if Modi is so confident that he is the only savior of India, why does he need a safe seat to contest from? ''People of this country want a brave PM, not one who wants to contest from a safe seat. People of this country will question his intentions,'' AAP Chief Arvind Kejriwal has said. Despite his party being new, Kejriwal took on three-times Delhi Chief Minister Sheela Dikshit last November and won against the Congress stalwart. He has dared Modi in a similar manner. Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi has raised the pitch by telling PTI, the country's premier news agency, ''The specific allegation and evidence pointing to Mr Modi's responsibility in the 2002 riots are yet to be adequately probed. Any talk of his having been given a clean chit may be politically expedient, but is far too premature. There are many unanswered questions. There is a lot more the country needs to know." Holding the Gujarat chief minister legally accountable for the "clear and inexcusable failure" of governance during the 2002 Gujarat riots, Gandhi said, no high court had exonerated Modi yet. Modi is unlikely to get any support from the ruling party (Samajwadi Party or SP) in the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is, nor from the Congress Party (INC).
India's Election Commission, the statutory body that manages free and fair elections all across the vast subcontinent, has announced that elections to the lower House of parliament (the Lok Sabha) will be held from April 7 to May 12. As much as 3 million square kilometers of land mass here is divided into 35 states and union territories that will go through this exercise to elect the next government, for which 820,000 polling stations have been set up so that more than 800 million citizens can vote. Of these, 150,000 are first-time voters; as many as 70 percent of Indians voting in 2014 are under age 50. The general elections are a colorful event, happening every five years since 1951. The traditional campaign tools for aspirants have been speeches at mega-gatherings, huge posters and banners of the candidates and songs. In 2014, social media became a major tool. The talking point is corruption: the poor state of the economy said to be a direct result of corruption. As India goes to the hustings, inflation has decreased by seven percent compared with what it was last year at the same time. Prices of food items, vegetables and fruits have fallen by 50 percent in February, compared with what they were in winter (a kilogram of potatoes cost about 15 rupees, about a quarter dollar) in the traditional markets. So either by chance or due to wise planning by the incumbent government, the elections are taking place at a time when prices are not very high and the winter harvest has been good. As the run-up was long, people have had more than six months to think about which party they will vote for.
Unlike in the US, there are no primaries. Parties still have symbols and people vote the symbol: the Hand is the symbol of the Congress Party; the Lotus the symbol of the BJP and the Broom the symbol of the AAP that won the Delhi state elections in November. The Indian Parliament's lower House has 543 seats. A party needs at least 272 seats to be able to form a government. In the last elections (2009), no single party won that many seats. The Congress Party won 206 seats and allied with smaller regional parties to chalk up the magic figure of 272 and give India a government for the last five years. Each state in India has a certain amount of parliament seats. These are tallied party-wise and a total is counted. The biggest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP) with 80 seats, is where Modi's destiny will be carved out.
The ruling Congress Party has two important candidates fighting for two seats in UP. They are Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son and party Vice President Rahul Gandhi. Rahul, projected as Congress's possible PM candidate and in a race with Modi, is fighting elections from Amethi. The Gandhi family has nurtured Amethi for the last two decades. AAP, fighting the parliamentary elections for the first time, has filed a candidate against Rahul. Sonia Gandhi is fighting from Rae Barelie, another UP seat nurtured for two decades. Several important Congress leaders, among them Finance Minister P Chidambaram, are shy of fighting the parliamentary polls. A new entrant for Congress in the southern IT hub, Bengaluru (Bangalore) is former Infosys top honcho Nandan Nilekeni. One other important Congress leader is Defense Minister A K Antony, supposed to have a squeaky clean image. However in the last five years, he has gained the reputation of being wary of taking any important decisions, and as a result has been at the receiving end of opposition criticism for weakening India's defense forces.
The BJP, which won 117 seats in the 2009 polls, will find it tough to gain 272 seats by itself in 2014, despite the Narendra Modi wave. Too many regional parties have prime ministerial aspirants.
If one takes the southern Indian states, Kerala, the most literate state in the country with sizeable Muslim populations and considerable Gulf money, has been ruled for the last 60 years by either the Congress or the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There is no way the BJP can gain anything there. In Tamilnadu, either the DMK or the AIADMK has always won. No BJP there. The ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was previously a BJP ally. However, this time, AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa has refused to commit support to the BJP, saying the prime minister can be chosen only after elections and not before. It is widely understood that she harbors national ambitions. Tamilnadu and Pondicherry's 40 seats could be kingmakers this year. The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has, as an ally of the Congress, contributed to the biggest scam in the country, the 2G telecom spectrum scam, in which its national minister A Raja was jailed. The DMK has broken its alliance with the Congress Party and Raja has been given a ticket to contest for a parliament seat. The DMK is likely to extend support to the BJP, if either wins enough seats for the parliament polls. If BJP takes DMK support, AIADMK will stay out of any alliance with it.
In Karnataka, the BJP is said to be strong. But it has taken two scam-tainted leaders Y S Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu, both said to be involved in mining scams worth billions of rupees, back into the party. This has caused considerable anger among senior BJP leaders like Shushma Swaraj, who also hoped - before Modi's advent - to become the BJP coalition's Prime Minister. There is no telling how the 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh will go this time. The Congress is fractured there, with the son of one of its past stalwarts a dissident and openly supporting the BJP. There is no real assessment of how many seats YSR Congress and its leader Jagannath Reddy can get. Just before the elections, the government split this large state into Telengana and Andhra, two separate states. The demand had been there for more than 60 years, but whether the split will bring Congress more seats in parliament or the support of Telengana Rashtra Samity, another small regional faction, is not known.
The east coast state of Odisha has a regional party that used to be with the BJP but has refused to enter any pre-poll alliance with a Modi-led BJP. How many of its 21 seats the BJP will get is a question. Jharkhand is a mineral rich state, where corruption has always been an issue. Its 14 seats are divided between the Congress and regional parties, who may or may not support the BJP. Now come the two big states of Bihar (40 seats) and Uttar Pradesh (UP) (80 seats). Both are ruled by regional parties. However, in Bihar, the ruling party Janata Dal (JDU) used to be an ally of the BJP. Now, chief minister Nitish Kumar has broken away from the BJP and is one of Modi's greatest detractors and himself a prime ministerial aspirant. While the BJP has allied with a tiny regional party, whether this will bring it better luck is not known, given its rift with the JDU and another regional satrap - Lalu Prasad Yadav and his RJD.
In UP, the regional ruler Samajwadi Party, is a staunch opponent of Narendra Modi, given its big Muslim vote-bank. BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi, a three-time winner from Varanasi, has been made to vacate the "safe" Varanasi seat for Narendra Modi to contest, in order to deflect the accusation that the Gujarat Chief Minister can win only if he contests from his home state Gujarat. This has displeased not only Joshi but others in the BJP too. Modi, however, is still not certain to win and is likely to contest another safe seat in Gujarat. Maneka Gandhi, Rahul's estranged aunt, and his cousin, Varun Gandhi, will contest two BJP seats from UP. Once a prime ministerial aspirant for the BJP, Arun Jaitley will contest in Punjab's Amritsar, displacing three-time BJP winner Navjot Sidhu, a very popular cricketer-comedian turned politician. Shifting popular leaders from assured seats is a great risk that a resurgent BJP has knowingly taken. This has angered Sidhu. In Punjab (13 seats), the Akali Dal is the BJP's alliance partner.
In West Bengal (42 seats) , maverick leader Mamata Banerjee has refused to ally with the BJP and the Congress and it is a matter of conjecture which way the wind will blow in a state dominated by the left for more than 30 years and now by Mamata's Trinamool Congress (TMC). While 28 Gujarat seats are assured for the BJP, how many of Maharashtra's 48 seats it will have is speculation again, given that there is rivalry between two right-wing militant regional groupings, the Shiv Sena and the Maharshtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) to draw attention away from the BJP. At the same time, Congress ally, the National Congress Party (NCP), is strong in this state, India's economic hub, its leader Sharad Pawar hoping to become prime minister of a non-Congress regional alliance.
Opinion polls have predicted everything from a hung parliament to a clean sweep by the BJP and a total rout for the ruling Congress. The fireworks are all over. Modi has said all he wanted to weeks ago, his politics peaking too early. Yet, as everyone knows, the world's most populous democracy is capable of springing some surprises. A regional leader may become a rallying figure after the elections. The world is watching how India will vote in April while its people hold their cards close to their chest.