Its fitting then that the most symbolic contest of this election, representing the three different ideas at the heart of it, is being fought in this triad. For Narendra Modi, the city is an unmistakable metaphor for his essential Hindu identity, Arvind Kejriwal sees himself as the agent of change and rebirth, while the Congress battle for survival is being spearheaded by a man who has taken the support of his elder brothers alleged murderer. It is easy to see why all their paths would lead to Varanasi.
The BJPs election office is the tallest multi-storey residential complex in the city, some 400-odd swanky flats all booked for its workers. Party workers to top BJP leaders, they are all here, from across the country, to work for Modi.
Such are the numbers, admits the BJPs Varanasi in-charge Ashok Dhawan, that many of them have little work. Senior BJP ministers from Chhattisgarh, for instance, idle away their time in five-star hotels or sightseeing.
The constituency has 1,600 booths and 32,000 BJP workers handling them, or 20 per booth. Since a booth has around 1,200 votes, each member has the task of ensuring just 60 voters reach the booth. Its all meticulously planned. One member can easily bring 60, Dhawan explains.
The Aam Aadmi Party operates from an under-construction, 200-sq-yard home. Several doors and bathroom fittings are yet to be put in. The home has been donated by an 84-year-old retired Uttar Pradesh policeman, Surendra Narain Singh, who lives next door. He used to vote for the BJP earlier, but now backs AAP. Kejriwal bhala aadmi hai, sanskaari hai (Kejriwal is a nice man, a cultured man), says Singh.
There is talk of lakhs of volunteers, but AAPs official number is 5,000. Of these, 2,000 are locals, who will oversee booths on May 12 voting day.
A retired Allahabad University lecturer, Laiqa Bano, manages four flats of her relatives for volunteers. Among these volunteers is her daughter Zehra Mehndi, who teaches at Amity University in Noida and has come home to vote for Kejriwal. We were never into politics, but we heard him once in Kashi and realised thats what politics is all about, says Mehndi and Banos daughter-in-law Nazia Khan, who leaves behind her two small children at home to work for AAP. Bande mein kuch hai (there is something about him), says Nazia.
Gurbachan Kaur, a retired principal of an intermediate college, has donated her car to AAP. Someone brings food, others things of daily needs.
The Samajwadi Party and BSP are invisible while the Congress is only present in the shape of its candidate Ajay Rai, a relatively new entrant to the party. A gritty man with a criminal past, Rai carries the image of a don. However, he is also a local who has won several elections in Kolaslah, a neighbouring Assembly segment, on BJP and Congress tickets.
Rai made his debut in 1993 as a BJP candidate, defeating CPI stalwart Udal from Kolaslah. Udal, who had held the seat largely unchallenged from 1957, belonged to an era of Communist dominance in the area, with the Progressive Writers Association strong in Benaras.
Rai has been going around quietly forging alliances with local chieftains and caste leaders. There is maths in that. He got 1.25 lakh votes last time in Varanasi, while Mukhtar Ansari of the BSP polled 1.87 lakh. Together, their votes far exceeded BJP winner Murli Manohar Joshis 2.03 lakh. The jailed Ansari, an accused in the murder of Rais elder brother Avadhesh, is now backing the Congress. A local strongman, he commands sizeable support.
Incidentally, Ansari earlier offered support to Kejriwal. He is very arrogant, said I dont take support from hooligans, says Mukhtars elder brother Afzal Ansari.
For all its claims of a Modi wave, the already strong BJP has not taken any chances in Modis seat. Of the five Assembly segments in the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, the BJP had got the three urban ones in 2012, and lost the rural ones of Sevapuri and Rohaniya. Now the BJP has forged an alliance with Rohaniyas Apna Dal MLA Anupriya Patel, the only legislator of this party in UP, and for her support given her Mirzapur and Pratapgarh seats. Two Lok Sabha seats for one Vidhan Sabha. Is this confidence or desperation says Rai.
Incidentally, following his confrontation with the Election Commission, Modi had cancelled all his programmes planned for Varanasi on May 8, except the rally in Rohaniya.
The Apna Dal brings in 1.5-lakh crucial Patel votes. This matters, because Varanasi doesnt quite neatly fall into the Hindu-Muslim narrative the BJP has carefully built.
The citys strong Hindu centre can't be denied, and it is the seat of several prominent Brahmin priests. However, Mughal kings also constructed a mosque adjoining the biggest temple in Varanasi, and while it may have voted in a BJP MP five of the last six times, the city has seen no communal clash in recent history.
Muslims work for Hindu traders, and Hindus work with us, says Mohammad Amik, a youth who runs a wholesale business of dates in Daal Mandi. Handloom and weaving are the most famous traditional trades of Benaras and both the communities are employed in it.
Kashis most famous Muslim resident was Ustad Bismillah Khan. For years, he played shehnai at Hindu weddings. People would come to abba, request him, Ustad saheb, mere bete ki shaadi mein bajana hai, says his son Mehtab Hussain. The Bharat Ratna of international fame lived in the same home through his life, and would walk up to the Ganga and Kashi Vishwanath temple daily to perform riyaz.
Mehtab sees nothing remarkable in what he says next: Mere abba ne Kashi ki Saraswati saadh li thi (My father had mastered Kashis Saraswati the Hindu goddess of art and knowledge).
Other Muslims show Hindu temples in their homes. Many homes here have a deity consecrated decades ago. Quite often, these homes are purchased by Muslims, the new owner renovates them, but leaves the temples as they are. In Madanpura exist two homes with temples of Durga and Shiva respectively. The home with the Shiva temple has had a Muslim handloom owner for decades. Hindus come and offer prayers.
They may not vote for the BJP, but it is not because of a grudge against Modi or Hindus in general, say Muslims across the city. Its just a general sentiment the community has against the saffron camp, a hitch that remains because the BJP has never tried to extend a hand sincerely. While Mehtab himself declined to be one of the nominators for Modis candidature, he doesnt see it on communal lines.
Signficantly, Muslims in urban areas also refuse to heed the call of Aftab and Mukhtar Ansari to vote for secular forces. We are not their puppet. Who they are to tell us they say.
The BJP admits it is unlikely to get any of the 3 lakh Muslim votes in the seat, but gleefully points out that these will be divided between Kejriwal and Rai, ultimately helping Modi.
Of the total 15.5 lakh voters in the constituency, the BJPs core bank of Brahmins and Vaishyas (traders) alone constitute over 4.5 lakh. With the Apna Dals 1.5 lakh Patel votes, the party believes it has the election sealed.
Dhawan, who has spearheaded the BJPs campaign in Varanasi for the past six polls, admits they started early and started big. While Modi announced his candidature only in March, the preparations began months ago. Chunaav ko lada baad men jata hai, pehle use khada kiya jata hai (An election is fought later, first you erect its structure), he says.
So thousands of workers were called to Varanasi to spread Modi's message. Hoardings of Gujarat tourism came up while garba tunes could suddenly be heard around the city.
AAP and Kejriwal only came into the picture in late March and Rais candidature was announced just a month ago, in April. Modi began running long ago. When others began, he had already crossed a lot of distance, says former SP leader Amar Singh.
BJP members apply lotus-shaped mehndi on womens palms. The male workers aggressively move around on bikes, saying Bhaag Kejriwal, Modi aaya. They wear distinct Hindu symbols and tell people that Congressmen snatched the home of Kargil widows, and that Pakistan routinely severs heads of Indian soldiers.
But if the fight is for the second slot, AAP volunteers are catching up fast with repeated visits to various localities. Alok Sharma, a native of Mathura, is now with a German multinational in Bangalore. He, along with some 50 professionals from Bangalore, is in Varanasi. They go door to door, explaining to people the significance of the ideas AAP promotes.
Politicians have never visited distant Rohaniya and Sevapuri but, say villagers there, jhadoo wale aaye din aate hain (AAP workers come every other day). They all know him, something that Rai, the self-proclaimed local candidate, cant claim.
There are fixed and floating voters. The magnitude of Modis campaign ensures that lots of fixed voters of other parties in Varanasi are now floating. Some Dalits of Varanasi, the supposedly most rigid vote of the BSP, have switched sides to Modi. Brothers Mukesh and Chandan Kumar are residents of Jameen Bairvan, a Dalit village in Rohaniya. They voted for Mayawati in the past, but are now backing Modi. Its not because they have developed a sudden admiration for him, they interject. Since everyone is following him, we dont want to stay away.
But a considerable chunk of floating voters has also gone to Kejriwal. In Bhikharipur village of Sevapur, another rural constituency, Rampyare Rajbhar says: We will vote for Kejriwal. He is the only honest man around.
Questioning Modis promises to clean the Ganga, modernise weaving and make Varanasi a tourist hub, Kejriwal says: Modi says the Ganga is dirty, ghats are polluted, weavers are in a poor condition. But the BJP has ruled the city for years. They have had MPs, MLAs, mayor, all resources. What would they do now that they have not done so far
But looking at Modis mammoth road shows, even Kejriwals staunchest supporters admit his efforts may be in vain. Says 18-year-old Puru Rai, whose family has given his home to AAPs office: Ill be voting for the first time and I am happy I am voting for Kejriwal. But he is going to lose. You just cannot do anything about it.
The Varanasi fight has drawn journalists and academics from across the globe. On May 8, Norimasa Tahara of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japans largest selling newspaper, battled the heat to sit through Modis rally in Rohaniya, trying to figure out what made him so appealing to youths. An American lecturer is also in Varanasi. She teaches Indian politics and is fascinated both by it and the city.
A Finnish woman of 28, who says she doesnt want Sonia Gandhi to return but is not sure about Modi either, is here making a documentary on death and immortality. In Europe, death is pushed aside, confined to hospitals or old-age homes, never confronted. Bodies are kept in black caskets, buried in secrecy. In India, you are not afraid of death, you celebrate it in public, says Judith Mei, pointing at several funerals taking place at Manikarnika Ghat in the middle of the night.
Many see this metaphor of life and death in Kejriwals campaign, drawing a parallel with saint-poet Kabir. The iconoclast poet lived in Kashi through his life but, in his last days, moved to Maghar, a place near Gorakhpur. If someone dies at Maghar, myth says, one reaches hell, unlike Kashi, the road to heaven. Kejriwal has come here to embrace a glorious death, but if he wins, it will be the biggest victory in Indian electoral history, notes a writer.
But what next for him if he loses, many wonder. When he contested against Sheila Dikshit, a similar question was asked. For us, politics and elections constitute an idea, of an honest government, a faith in peoples power. We will win, says Nagender Sharma, Kejriwals media advisor.
For now, the talk on the streets is that Rai and Kejriwal have reduced Modis margin. Or, at the very least, that the Modi wave seems thwarted. Earlier, Dhawan would claim that the BJP wont be satisfied by anything less than the biggest Lok Sabha victory ever. The record victory margin in India is some 5 lakh votes. We will surpass that, he said 10 days ago. The party is now focusing on just a victory.