In Indian politics, the road to Delhi passes through Lucknow

Narendra Modi's chance of becoming prime minister depend on his ability to secure the votes of Muslims.

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With the Indian elections nearing, there is increasing focus on one man – Narendra Modi. Debates are raging about whether the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and the Gujarat chief minister would be able to garner crucial Muslim votes and whether a politician like him, who has never looked beyond his home state, is fit to run the world’s biggest democracy.

Undoubtedly, he is a man of extraordinary political acumen, who can turn adversity to his advantage, often just by maintaining his silence on controversial issues.

The Godhra riot in 2002 is the most obvious example of this.

He has seldom commented on the matter, and has steered clear of any references to Hindu politics that could reignite the debate on his religious ideology.

Instead, he has repeatedly spoken of his administrative ability citing the economic progress Gujarat has made.

This is perhaps why he seems to have succeeded in selling the dream of a “shining India”, based on an equal society, particularly to Muslim youths, without offering a word of contrition for the 2002 horrors. Mr Modi will contest the elections not from Vadodara in Gujarat but from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh is a state of great political significance – it sends the largest number of legislators to parliament. There is a popular saying in Indian politics that the road to Delhi passes through Lucknow, its capital. So any party seeking to form a government must strive to achieve an impressive performance in the Hindi heartland. If Mr Modi can do that, Delhi will be close at hand.

Mr Modi has been preparing the ground in Uttar Pradesh for a long time, not by trying to connect with the people directly but through his confidante, Amit Shah, who had been working tirelessly in the state for the past year or so.

BJP activists in Uttar Pradesh believe the party will be able to do well against such rivals as the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress and the new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party. If the BJP can win 40 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, it will be in pole position.

Supporters say Varanasi is traditionally a safe bet for the BJP, but political calculations apart, Varanasi has another significance: it’s a holy city for Hindus.

Situated at the banks of the River Ganges, Varanasi – traditionally referred to as Kashi – is considered by the Hindus as the place to attain emancipation from the cycle of life.

The religious significance of Varanasi was underscored by Mr Modi last year when, during a visit to the city – which he described as a trip from “Somnath [the Shiva temple in Gujarat] to Vishwanath [the Shiva temple in Varanasi]” – he said that cleaning the Ganges was as much a political commitment as a religious duty.

But there is something more worrying than this. Like the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir controversy in Ayodhya, the issue of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, which is adjacent to Gyanvapi mosque, is also in dispute. Communal tension has erupted many times.

That’s why Mr Modi’s decision to contest the elections from Varanasi is likely to bring a strong undercurrent of polarisation. And that’s perhaps why Varanasi makes an ideal place for Mr Modi to turn the page on history.

By choosing it as his battlefield, he has reaffirmed his intention to weaken India’s secularism as much as he did more than a decade ago.