The BJP and the election commission (EC) seemed headed for a showdown after the district administration on Tuesday refused permission for a rally by PM candidate Narendra Modi in Varanasi's Beniyabagh area, which has a sizeable Muslim population.
Modi is contesting from the seat, which goes to polls on May 12. The BJP has written to chief election commissioner VS Sampath and demanded the removal of the electoral officer, district magistrate Pranjal Yadav.
Accusing the EC of being a "mute spectator" to returning officer Yadav's "highly partisan" role in denying permission for the rally on Thursday, the BJP demanded his immediate removal.
"Is Narendra Modi banned from entering Varanasi?" Jaitley asked. Jaitley also announced he and other senior leaders would sit on a dharna outside the Banaras Hindu University at 11am on Thursday in protest. The BJP leaders will also protest outside the Election Commission office in New Delhi.
Jaitley said the district magistrate was making "unbelievable" excuses to "deny" security approval for the rally, which was a right of any candidate. "The returning officer has lied... This is not a banana republic. I have written three letters to the EC. We will hold protests at Lanka Gate outside BHU," Jaitley said.
The DM, however, late on Wednesday allowed Modi to attend a 'Ganga pujan' ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in the temple town. Yadav also approved Modi's meeting at Surya Hotel with 150 eminent persons of the society and a public meeting at the Chota Cutting memorial ground.
In Varanasi, its urban Modi versus rural Kejriwal
Modi's close aide and the BJP's UP in-charge Amit Shah, in press conference late on Wednesday, said the permission came too late and the BJP PM nominee's 'pujan' and rally plan remained cancelled as the party could not make preparations. Shah also said the protests would go on as planned.
"In case of no permission, Narendra Modi will land at BHU's helipad after the BJP's meeting at Rohaniya. He will then go to the party's election office in Varanasi. He will then go to the airport," Jaitley had said earlier in the day.
The BJP leadership is planning to convert Modi's journey from the Banaras Hindu University -at the helipad of which he would land - to the party's central election office at Sigra into a roadshow of sorts on Thursday.
Though the party issued no official statement, a senior leader who was not willing to be named said: "Since the district administration has cancelled Narendra Modi's rally at Beniyabagh and not allowed Ganga puja at Dashashwamedh Ghat, we will have to compensate for these in some form or the other."
"We are planning to convert Modi's journey from the BHU to the party's central election office into a kind of road show", he added.
"Narendra Modi's journey from BHU to the party's central election office will not be a simple one as the district administration thinks," another leader added.
Modi would reach the BHU after addressing a rally at Jagat Inter College, Rohaniya, a rural assembly segment of Varanasi. The Rohaniya rally has been allowed while permission for the rally at Beniyabagh ground has been denied.
From the university, Modi would go to Sigra by road. His fleet would pass through several areas of the city and Modi's cavalcade might also take a turn towards the Godowlia crossing or Lahurabir crossing, in the heart of the city.
Top officials sought to blame the permission issue to non-receipt of ground report from security agencies and said a final decision could be taken by evening. They claimed the request for the rally at the Beniyabagh ground was received on Tuesday.
Terming the situation as "unprecedented", Jaitley said, "Holding public meeting in his constituency is right of every candidate and Narendra Modi cannot be denied the same.
"If the approval is denied on the basis of some backdated letter or so-called intelligence alerts about security issues, they are only excuses. We have written to the CEC and hope the situation to become clear very soon."
Asked if the BJP suspected that the Uttar Pradesh government was behind the "denial", Jaitley said, "I do not know who is interfering, but the DM as an electoral officer is free to decide on such things and not supposed to come under any kind of pressure."
In a strong rebuttal, the EC said it did not accept any "insinuation or inaction" in this regard and would take action against the officer if he was found guilty of "partisan" behaviour. "The commission is getting all facts about Varanasi and will do everything under the law and its mandate to conduct free and fair polls," it said in a rare statement.
BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said the Varanasi administration was obeying an "unwritten order" and there was an "undeclared understanding" between them and the ruling Samajwadi Party. "It is absolutely unacceptable. We are quite surprised."
Beniyabagh is in the heart of the city and has a sizeable Muslim population. In the 1991 elections, law and order problems had cropped up during BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha's rally at Beniyabagh ground. After much effort, the administration had brought the situation under control.
Thursday's dharna would be yet another example of the BJP turning an adverse situation to its advantage. "Whether or not he (Modi) addresses a rally, party strategists have ensured he remains the centre of discussion. Our workers will spread the message of how Modi has been unfairly treated when other contenders have been given permission for pujas and rallies. It only helps us," a BJP leader said.
Varanasi is among the most keenly followed contests in the Indian elections. Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal is contesting from the seat and the Congress has fielded former BJP MLA Ajay Rai.