New Delhi: It was Mamata Banerjee who can be credited for winning an Assembly election on the issue of crony capitalism via, among other things, the Tata-Singur imbroglio. But 2014 would be the first national election in which the issue of crony capitalism has acquired some traction, thanks to Narendra Modi's pro-business stance and Arvind Kejriwal's anti-corruption one. But anyone who thinks that this signature campaign in Varanasi will provide an unequivocal answer against or in favour of business and industry is likely to be disappointed. Now that they've clearly drawn the battle lines between them in this spiritual centre that is perennially enriched by the brisk business of religion, Messrs Modi and Kejriwal appear to have reverted to type.
The "Har Har Modi" chants adopted by the indefatigable followers of the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial campaign (quickly withdrawn after the outrage of orthodox Hindus) were designed to be an unabashed appeal to the Brahmin and middle-caste majority in this holy city.
These extreme expressions of Hindu orthodoxy should not be surprising, given that Mr Modi's foot soldiers are drawn from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But they are noteworthy in the light of Mr Modi's unabashed courting of powerful business interests on the quasi-secular platform of good governance these past few years - and good governance, in this context, essentially meant creating an enabling environment for business. Packaged on a nebulous construct called the Gujarat Model - commentators still fiercely argue over its efficacy - Mr Modi managed to imbue his proto-campaign with an agnosticism that partially allayed any misgivings related to 2002. More to the point, it enabled a brisk rise in campaign contributions from a variety of deep-pocketed industrial houses.
Mr Kejriwal's recent actions have been more of a surprise. Neither religion nor caste played a role in his popularity in Delhi, and in other upscale cities, indeed, he shied away from the slightly saffron-hued tint in the movement led by Kisan Baburao Hazare. It was his blunt, if somewhat unorthodox, approach to the very real problem of corruption and venality that made him the most exciting phenomenon on the political scene since Jayaprakash Narayan. Climbing up electricity poles to cut illegal connections, lying on a pavement to demand more control over Delhi's police, filing FIRs against the central government's gas pricing decision - this is the kind of derring-do middle-class and upper-middle-class people long to emulate but lack the gumption to do so.
Mr Kejriwal has been forthright, too, in his criticism of industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, singling them out for what he sees as beneficiaries of political favour, allegations that few people would dare to openly express. Mukesh Ambani, it may be recalled, was uncharacteristically eloquent at last year's Vibrant Gujarat summit. "In Narendra Modi, we have a leader with a grand vision," he had said. He was outdone only by his younger brother, Anil Ambani, who extravagantly described the Gujarat chief minister as "king of kings" (Anil Ambani's power companies in Delhi were briefly at the receiving end of Mr Kejriwal's power price campaign). By corralling the alleged practices of big businessmen into his anti-corruption rhetoric, Mr Kejriwal had drawn a straight line between business, corruption and the sufferings of ordinary people.
Coming as it did on top of the serial business-related controversies in telecom, coal, iron ore mining, tax evasion and black money, Mr Kejriwal managed to build a platform that certainly resonated with a certain section of urban India. It is striking that many of his followers have been post-reform businessmen and executives - players who are fundamentally uncomfortable with the old paradigms of political patronage and pelf that continue to scar the reputation of Indian business.
Given that, it was disturbing to see, on the day he announced his candidature from Varanasi, photographs of Mr Kejriwal's skinny, lungi-clad torso being lowered into the murky waters of the Ganga in a cleansing snaan and his forehead smeared with the sandalwood paste of a puja.
To be sure, Mr Kejriwal is fully entitled to his personal religious beliefs, as much as Mr Modi. But he was visiting Varanasi in his capacity as a public, political contender on a platform that has - so far - been notably non-religious in content. And though his speeches did focus on his favourite theme of Mr Modi and Rahul Gandhi's surrender to corporate interests, the hollowness of Gujarat's "development" et al, it is hard to deny the subliminal message conveyed by his very public religious observances. It is also worth wondering what all this conveyed to the nearly 19 per cent of Muslims who make up this constituency. It is possible that Mr Kejriwal is trying to build some degree of commonality with Mr Modi to compensate for the lack of solid governance experience that his rival undoubtedly has. But his actions certainly diminish the prospects of this campaign rising above the same old tired issues of caste and religion.