Lusty slogans resonated through the narrow lanes and flag-waving supporters cheered heartily as top leaders of major contenders for power in Uttar Pradesh descended on the ancient temple town, Varanasi, in a last gasp effort to swing the voters in their favour.
Leading the virtual parade of the top guns was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who turned his visit to the famous Kashi Vishwanath and Kal Bhairav temples into an impromptu roadshow, a day ahead of the one planned for Sunday.
Before beginning the roadshow through the winding streets of the city, Modi also paid floral tributes at the statue of Hindutva ideologue Madan Mohan Malviya at the Banaras Hindu University, in moves loaded with symbolism in a campaign which saw BJP revive the divisive talk of Ram temple and the prime minister seemed appealing to religious sensibilities by his 'graveyard and crematorium' remark.
Modi's roadshow came on a day when the sixth phase of polling in 49 constituencies, including Gorakhpur and Azamgarh in the state was underway. BJP leaders feel that the hours-long event, broadcast live on most of the regional TV news channels, will help their cause when the 40 remaining seats go to the polls in the final phase on 8 March.
However, some felt differently, like Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, who took exception to Modi holding a roadshow, saying it is not appropriate for his high office and he should address rallies only. Kushwaha, who is the chief of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, a BJP ally, said in a statement. His comments hinted at unease between the BJP and some of its junior partners and sources said discontent is not limited to the Bihar-based party.
It is noteworthy that Kushwaha's party was keen on contesting a few seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls as a BJP ally and had joined hands with some small parties in the state after the saffron party ignored its wish.
Meanwhile, the prime minister would have had little reasons to doubt the wisdom of his decision to launch an impromptu road show as outpouring support in his constituency and t his Jaunpur rally made for a heady mix for his party.
Slogans like Subah Banaras, sham Banaras; Modi tere naam Banaras and 'Modi, Modi' greeted the Prime Minister as he waved from an open top vehicle covered with marigold. Visuals, streets after streets and twisty alleyways streaked saffron in Varanasi as people donning BJP stamped paraphernalia were everywhere to be seen.
The only other time Modi held a roadshow in the city was in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls after he picked Varanasi as one of his seats. The BJP swept the 2014 polls in Uttar Pradesh, winning 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats, along with its ally Apna Dal.
Apart from this, the prime minister also addressed a rally in the neighbouring town of Jaunpur, where he took a dig at his opponents in his signature style.
He said the voters in Uttar Pradesh have got an opportunity to perform the pind daan (last rites) of their "tormentors". He also said that unlike the BJP, its opponents believed in kuch ka saath, kuch ka hi vikas (with a few, development of a few)."
He also sought to corner the Samajwadi Party over the issue of tainted UP minister Gayatri Prajapati. "In this country, when we do something good, we chant the Gayatri Mantra. But, the SP-Congress alliance is chanting the Gayatri Prajapati Mantra," Modi said.
Prajapati was present at a poll meeting addressed by Akhilesh at Amethi, from where he is re-contesting on an SP ticket, even after he was booked at the behest of the Supreme Court in the cases of alleged rape of a minor girl and alleged gangrape of her mother.
"A daughter is seeking justice and the chief minister is shielding the gunehgaar (guilty)...What bigger blot can there be than this that in Uttar Pradesh, when a buffalo goes missing, the government runs to find it," Modi added.
Modi's buffalo remark was in the context of the Uttar Pradesh police running from pillar to post to track down the milch animals of state minister Azam Khan which were stolen.
Down in the dumps in the politically crucial cow belt state for the last 15 years before its spectacular performance in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP, which has not declared its chief ministerial candidate for UP, is banking on the personal charisma of Modi to catapult the party back to power again.
Samajwadi Party president and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, who is seeking a second successive term in office after stitching an alliance with Congress, in wilderness in the state for a long time, also led a roadshow with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi through the city, but not before he had paid a visit to the 'Kashi Vishwanath' temple of Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of Varanasi.
Amid chanting of 'shlokas', Akhilesh, sporting the red Samajwadi Party cap, was seen kneeling at the temple and seeking the blessings of the priests.
Akhilesh's MP wife Dimple, who has of late emerged as a star campaigner of the party after the sulking Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to largely keep away from the fiercely fought electoral battle, joined the roadshow midway.
Mulayam has so far addressed only a few election meetings for his brother Shivpal and younger daughter-in-law Aparna in their Jaswantnagar and Lucknow (cantonment) seats.
The alliance partners mustered thousands of supporters for their parallel show of strength. Their supporters lined the streets and showered flower petals as the roadshow inched its way through crowded streets.
Posters proclaiming 'Akhilesh Again' with the image of a smiling Chief Minister were seen along the route. An incident of stone-pelting was reported near Chowka Ghat as the convoy passed by, but police denied it, saying supporters of rival parties came face-to-face over hoisting flags but a clash was averted.
BSP leader Mayawati, seeking a fifth term as Chief Minister, did not visit Varanasi but held an election rally at Rohaniya, about 20 km from the main city, where she claimed the people at Modi's roadshow were "mere spectators" brought from neighbouring states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
She also asserted that the BJP and the SP-Congress combine were fighting for second and third place in the UP polls.
Mayawati said the joint roadshow by Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi reflected they had "reconciled to defeat". She said prayers being offered at temples and shrines "will be of no avail".
With inputs from PTI
Updated Date: Mar 04, 2017 23:00 PM