To supervise its campaign in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency, the BJP has set up an election office in an around 4,000 sq ft area on the second floor of a multi-storey building in Mehmoorganj area of the city. A vertical flex board hanging on the building declares, ‘Main bhi chowkidar’.
From the office and Modi’s own constituency office, five-page booklets are being handed out to BJP leaders coming to campaign for Modi, talking about major development works undertaken in the city of temples in the past five years with him as the seat’s MP. However, on the ground, it’s not development that is the BJP’s predominant campaign theme. That is “national security”, and why the Modi government must be voted back to check terrorism and Naxalism.
Lok Sabha Elections 2019 | Polling schedule, results date, constituency-wise election results, key candidates
On April 25, when Modi, in Varanasi to file his nomination papers, held a road show, the BJP put up more than 100 stages to welcome him, from where flower petals were showered and patriotic songs blared out. In an address to citizens of the city the same day, the PM talked about the blast inside Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi in 2006. Before he arrived, on a day the temple was holding its annual Shri Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, artistes gathered to paint paintings and sketches of officials killed in different terror attacks, as a tribute to them. Among them was a painting of former Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare, which drew the most people. The BJP has distanced itself from the controversial remarks of its Bhopal candidate, Pragya Singh Thakur, against Karkare.
“Development of several thousand crores has been done in Varanasi in the past five years. People are observing these things in their daily life. But voters should be made aware that the Modi government has controlled terror and did airstrikes inside Pakistan,” says Santosh, a BJP worker.
A group of RSS workers, under the banner of the Lok Jagran Manch, are running a similar campaign, with appeal to support a ‘rashtrawadi (nationalist) party’ and to reject those who “question the bravery of security personnel”. At the RSS office in Mehmoorganj, an office-bearer who doesn’t want to be named says, “Modi’s win is sure. We are focusing on increasing voter turnout, and for two reasons. First, we are worried that the BJP’s traditional voters may avoid stepping out in such hot weather as they are sure of his win, and secondly we want to increase the victory margin.”
Modi had got 5.81 lakh votes in 2014, defeating the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal by 3.7 lakh votes. Even in the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP had won four of the five segments falling under Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, with its ally Apna Dal winning the fifth.
Even before Modi, Varanasi had been a BJP stronghold, with the party retaining it consistently since 1991, but for 2004, when the Congress’s Rajesh Kumar Mishra had won.
Asserting that Modi would win by even more votes this time, an RSS office-bearer, Jai Prakash, says, “2014 me keval Modi ka naam tha. Iss baar unka naam aur kaam dono hain (In 2014, there was only Modi’s name. This time his name and work will both count).”
A majority of the voters in Varanasi constituency are upper-caste Hindus, including Brahmins, Bhumihars, Jaiswals, followed by Muslims and OBCs.
Shivakant Mishra, a grocery shopkeeper near Dashshwamedh Ghat, says he supports the BJP making national security a poll issue. “Slogans of Bharat ke tukde-tukde have been raised. Such forces need to be stopped,” he says.
The Congress candidate is Ajay Rai, renominated by the party as its Varanasi candidate just hours before Modi’s roadshow, putting to rest speculation that general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may contest against Modi.
But Abdul Lateef, a weaver living in Madanpura area of Varanasi, says they don’t have much hope of the Congress doing well. “If Priyanka had contested and the SP-BSP gathbandhan had supported her, the fight would have been stronger. Anti-BJP votes would have pooled together in her favour. But the Congress has fielded Rai, who lost in 2014 and 2009, and the SP-BSP former Congress leader Shalini Yadav. Votes of Muslims will get divided, to the BJP’s advantage,” he says.
The BJP might also gain from the entry of Vijay Jaiswal, who had been the BSP candidate from Varanasi in 2014, into the party fold.
In the Muslim-dominated locality of Sonarpura, Shahid Masoor talks about demonetisation and the GST having destroyed their traditional trade of weaving. “My two sons left for Maharashtra in search of jobs,” he says.
If he questions the BJP’s claims of development in the city, his friend Mohammad Akram asks how the party can make nationalism and national security a poll agenda. “The government has not shown any proof that any human being was killed in the (Balakot) airstrike. We are also nationalist. But we vote on the issue of employment and basic amenities,” Akram says.
Both the Congress and gathbandhan have also been targeting the Modi government’s Rs 600 crore Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, for which a number of houses have been demolished, stoking local anger. The BJP is countering the opposition by calling the project in the interest of devotees.