The BJP guessing game: Is Modi in Varanasi a 'done deal'?

Given that the date for Lok Sabha elections are out now, the speculation surrounding where BJP's PM candidate Narendra Modi will contest from is getting louder.  Today's report in the  Times of India claims Modi will indeed fight from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, despite AAP's threat that it will field Arvind Kejriwal if Modi chooses a constituency outside Gujarat.

TOI quotes a senior party leader source as saying, ""Take it as almost a done deal," said a senior party leader when asked about the prospect of Modi picking Varanasi as a battle ground after a constituency in Gujarat."

Modi to contest from Varanasi. PTI

Modi to contest from Varanasi. PTI

It adds that "Joshi may be persuaded to shift to Kanpur in case Modi is chosen as his replacement in Varanasi." The decision however is unlikely to be taken today when the party considers its next set of nominations and tickets, adds the report.

Modi's name was not on the first list released by the BJP. It is also unlikely to be on the second list, as keeping up the suspense is part of his campaign's strategy.  Previously Firstpost's Sanjay Singh had reported that "though there is a broad understanding in Modi’s core team on where he should contest from, there is no clarity yet on which of the seats shortlisted for him."

He had written that the potential seats listed for Modi include Ahmedabad East and Vadodra in Gujarat, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

So why the suspense for Modi when it comes to declaring the seat? When it comes to deciding on UP, there was some confusion, according to Sanjay Singh, who wrote, "It isn't clear whether he should contest only from Gujarat or he should also contest from Uttar Pradesh. It has now been decided by Singh and Modi that for a variety of reasons it’s only prudent to keep this suspense going till the end and keep themselves focussed on other electorally strategic issues, including working out on alliances in different states. After the initial plan to contest from Uttar Pradesh, Modi had negated the idea of going to northern state and instead planned to contest from his home state of Gujarat. But lately there has been a review in this strategy and his contesting from UP is a distinct possibility."

If Modi does contest from Varansi, the decision could be framed as a gesture of confidence,  to show critics that the BJP leader is not afraid of contesting an election  outside of Gujarat and is ready to lead the charge in one of the biggest battleground states, Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is a good choice as it has been a key BJP constituency. The current MP Murli Manohar Joshi won by a margin of nearly 20,000 votes.  Congress  has won the seat only once in the past two decades, and that was in 2004. Before that BJP candidates have held the seat continuously.

Of course, given the BJP's "will he, won't he" approach, the Varanasi rumour may be just another PR ploy to heighten the guessing game, and keep Modi in the headlines. That the report is timed right as Kejriwal is making waves for his Gujarat tour is no accident. The intent may simply be to send out the message that Modi fears no one -- and defuse all AAP spin to the contrary.

But suspense as a strategy works only the short-run. Stoking speculation of a UP run over and again will prove foolhardy if Modi were to decide to stay put in Gujarat -- making it easier for AAP to portray the choice as a loss of nerve. Politics is the art of managing expectations, and with Modi, they always run high.

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