The scion of India’s most famous political dynasty rolled down the packed streets of Varanasi, campaigning on behalf of his party’s candidate for parliament. He leaned over the railing of the bus to touch the outstretched hands of supporters. The man he came to support, Ajay Rai, is a local hero, and people had turned out in droves.Rai is also something of a gangster and political shapeshifter, and his influence is nothing compared to the other men running for this seat. He is the Congress Party candidate in Varanasi; his rivals—Narendra Modi, of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party, and Arvind Kejriwal, of the “Common Man” party—held competing rallies elsewhere in the city.After six weeks of voting, the result of the world’s biggest election comes down to this city—and these three men. Modi and the BJP are ascendant, widely tipped to take the election in a landslide. Kejriwal is an upstart anti-corruption campaigner who most analysts suspect won’t make a big splash in the national arena. And Rai is something of a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the Congress Party, which is slipping and sliding toward its worst defeat ever.Rai “has an impressive list of criminal charges against him, including heinous ones like attempt to murder, extortion, rioting,” writes one commentator in India’s DNA. Rai’s brother was murdered by a rival gangster in the 1990s, precipitating a vicious gang war. Rai began his career, strangely enough, as a politician for the BJP. A few years later he resurfaced as a leader of a smaller rival party but was defeated when he ran for a seat in the national election. He switched again and became an independent, and by 2012 he signed up with the Congress party. He seems to have a remarkable ability to tailor his politics to suit whichever party comes calling; he even made peace with the gangster who murdered his brother. India’s political analysts were almost universal in shaking their heads when the Congress party chose him as its candidate in Varanasi.Varanasi has been seething with political fervor over the past few days. India’s national election, the world’s largest democratic exercise, officially culminates here, and the big men are all in town. This state sends more elected representatives to the national parliament than any other; it has more residents than all of Brazil. A record number of people—66 percent of the population, roughly 550 million people—voted over the six-week marathon election. It’s hard to understate the importance of India’s election. While most of the Western world is focused on Ukraine and the upcoming European election, something of far greater importance for geopolitics and for Asia’s future is happening in India. How the next government deals with India’s struggling economy and its uncertain role in regional affairs has immense implications for Asian and global politics.
Modi RisingThe World's Biggest Election Culminates in Divided Town
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