The Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance’s apparent arithmetical advantage is giving jitters to the BJP in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency that has virtually turned into the country’s second capital for Union ministers.
Go to any nukkad sabha, or street-corner meeting, in this ancient temple town by the Ganga, you are very likely to spot a Union minister exhorting people to vote for Modi on March 8 when Varanasi goes to the polls in the final round of the Uttar Pradesh elections.
“Modiji’s prestige is at stake. The BJP might get a majority in the entire state but if it doesn’t win in his constituency, it will be treated as Modi’s loss because UP is voting for Modi, not for the BJP,” said Dr Kaushal Kishore Mishra, the head of political science at Banaras Hindu University.
BJP chief Amit Shah camped at Amethi House to draw the war strategy, while Union ministers were sweating it out in and around the city last week — JP Nadda, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Manoj Sinha, Smriti Irani, Narendra Singh Tomar, Kalraj Mishra, Ananth Kumar and Mahendra Nath Pandey.
Power minister Piyush Goyal flew from New Delhi to Mumbai early in the morning last Tuesday to cast his vote in the civic polls there and took a detour to Varanasi for a late-night meeting with Shah, before returning to the Capital for a cabinet meeting the next day.
The throng of ministers underscores the BJP’s desperation to do well and prove a point in the five assembly segments, and three more in Varanasi district, within Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency.
The opposition is formidable and combined with a nonchalant party cadre and loyal voters upset with the leadership’s choice of candidates, the BJP has almost hit the panic button.
Of the five constituencies in Varanasi, the Samajwadi Party (SP) won two — Sevapuri and Rohaniya — in the previous polls. The state’s ruling party took Rohaniya in the 2014 bypolls, held after the resignation of Anupriya Patel who was elected to the Lok Sabha.
The BJP holds the other three assembly segments — Varanasi North, South and Cantonment.
But the combined vote-share of the Congress and SP in each of these constituencies in the 2012 elections was more than the BJP’s.
In 2012, the SP and Congress candidates together secured over 58,000 votes in Varanasi South, about a thousand more that what seven-term BJP legislator Shyamdev Roy Chaudhury, the winner.
Chaudhury, a popular MLA known to ride a scooter in a vest when his help is sought in an emergency, was denied a poll ticket this time. He has been persuaded to campaign for the official party candidate, but the message is not lost to anyone in the constituency.
In Varanasi Cant, the SP and Congress candidates together got 25,000 more votes than the BJP candidate in 2012. BJP’s Jyotsana Srivastava secured about 58,000 votes to become the MLA.
The BJP nominated her son for the 2017 elections, triggering a howl of protest from party leaders waiting their turn.
Mishra, the political science teacher actively associated with the party, explained the palpable panic in the BJP camp: “Ground-level workers are still not getting out and people are also silent.”
But he was confident that Modi’s rally and road show on March 3 will change the political scenario.
The BJP was planning the road show from Lanka to Town Hall — a 7km stretch — but it has changed the route now.
Subject to clearance by the Special Protection Group (SPG) that protects the Prime Minister, the rescheduled show will be from Madan Mohan Malviya’s statue outside the BHU campus and end at Kashi Vishwanath temple a couple of km away.
“Think of the loud message this short distance from Malviya’s statue to the temple will send. If Rahul (Gandhi) and Akhilesh (Yadav) do a road show, it’s for elections. When Modiji does it, it’s a visit to the temple,” a senior BJP functionary said.
Malviya, a member of the Hindu Mahasabha, one of the founts of the BJP, left the Congress in 1934 in protest against a provision for separate electorates for the minorities. He was a former president of the Congress.
The symbolism in the road show is designed to appeal to Hindu sentiments, which is expected to dissolve whatever grouse people might have against the BJP in this seat of spirituality.