Is Modi's Presence in Varanasi a Sign of BJP's Desperation to Win UP?

Till the third phase of the UP assembly elections, the BJP had a relatively quiet campaign, but it seems to have changed its tactic mid-way through the fourth phase, making excessive use of the prime minister.

Samajwadi Party supporters at Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi's roadshow in Varanasi on March 4. Credit: Titash Sen/The Wire

Samajwadi Party supporters at Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi’s roadshow in Varanasi on March 4. Credit: Titash Sen/The Wire

Varanasi: For the last three days, the political capital of the country seems to have shifted to Varanasi. Yesterday, it witnessed the rally of an ex-chief minister, a road show of the current chief minister with the vice president of the main opposition party, and a ‘de-facto road show’ of the prime minister – all in a single day. As residents breathe a sigh of relief after yesterday’s historic road jam, their problems are not likely to ease till March 6, the day when the campaign for the last phase of the UP elections comes to an end.

Most hotels are fully booked and scores of OB vans are stationed in Varanasi as journalists from Delhi and UP remain camped in the city, along with a number of star campaigners, officials and security personnel. There is a camera in every other tea-kachori shop, clichéd talk shows in boats on the Ganga or at Assighat have flooded television screens, and ‘local experts’, popularly called ganmany naagrik, are overworked as journalists run out of ideas to do stories on. In this scenario, a surprising development is the sudden increase in rallies and the presence of Prime Minister Modi in Uttar Pradesh.

The current scenario

After its failure in the Bihar elections – where Modi and Shah were over exposed in a high decibel campaign – and the success in Assam elections – where local leaders got prominence in a comparatively low profile campaign – BJP leaders were relying more on the Assam model in UP till the third phase. However, it changed its strategy mid-way after the fourth phase and in the last two phases, a sudden surge in Modi’s rallies and programs – including a three day stay in his constituency, Varanasi – shows that the party has decided to once again over expose its biggest star.

One apparent reason could be the pitiable state of the party candidates in the prime minister’s own Lok Sabha constituency. The Varanasi district has eight assembly constituencies and the BJP won three of them in the 2012 elections. Two were won by the BSP and one each by the SP, Congress and Apna Dal. Generally, two seats of the district are considered reserved for two specific candidates – Ajay Rai of Congress at Pindra and Shyamdev Roy Chaudhary at Varanasi South – both of whom have been MLAs many times. While Rai still appears strong at his own seat, BJP created trouble for itself by denying a ticket to Shyamdev Roy Chaudhary. Known more by his nickname ‘Dada’, Chaudhary is a veteran Bengali politician who commands immense respect in the city due to his down to earth lifestyle and honesty. After witnessing the scale of popular anger against the party once Dada was dropped, the BJP tried to control the damage by bringing Chaudhary in the official campaign, but without much effect. Congress has fielded former Varanasi MP, Rajesh Mishra here, while the BSP candidate Rakesh Tripathi is also a Brahmin. In a triangular contest, Mishra appears better placed than the BJP candidate, Neelkanth Tiwari.

Assighat, at Varanasi. Credit: Rajan Pandey

Assighat, at Varanasi. Credit: Rajan Pandey

The BJP is seemingly confident of winning the Cantonment constituency seat, though there seems to be hidden anger within party ranks against the candidature of Saurabh Srivastava. Srivastava is the son of incumbent BJP MLA Jyotsana Srivastava whose family members have been getting BJP tickets from this seat for very long – a fact that has led to anger among party workers. But even if it wins this seat, the BJP’s prospects on the remaining five seats seem bleak. On the Varanasi North seat, BJP’s sitting MLA Ravindra Jaiswal is in trouble this time. Jaiswal succeeded in winning this seat defeating BSP’s Sujit Maurya by a slender margin of around 2000 votes only. This time, Sujit appears stronger than last time as the induction of Mukhtar Ansari into BSP has added the strength of Ansari voters to his tally, which could spell trouble for Jaiswal.

On the Shivpur seat, BJP’s Anil Rajbhar is considered a ‘weak candidate’ against BSP’s Thakur Virendra Singh, a former minister, who has considerable clout on this seat, and SP’s Anand Mohan Yadav, a close confidant ofchief minister Akhilesh Yadav. At the Sevapuri seat, sitting MLA and minister Surendra Singh Patel of SP appears strong when compared to BSP’s Mahendra Nath Pandey and BJP alliance’s Nil Ratan Singh Patel. In this scenario, the party’s only hopes lie at the remaining two seats of Rohaniya and Ajgara SC. While BJP candidate Surendra Narayan Singh appears to be gaining popular support at the Rohaniya seat, the party’s prospects at the Ajgara SC seat seem dicey due to stiff competition from BSP candidate and sitting MLA Tribhuvan Ram and Lalji Sonkar of SP. If the party fails to make any positive impact here, its chances would come down to only two seats of the district (Cant. and Rohaniya), spelling a loss of one seat in the prime minister’s own turf.

A clash of conspiracy theories

While the above reasons appear to be the most likely explanation for the prime minister’s three day program in Varanasi, some other theories abound. One theory is that the BJP is winning UP elections now, and the party wants Modi to be credited for it, which is why it has increased his presence in the state. Adding weight to this theory are two broad assumptions. One is that the party has the widest spectrum of electoral support, spread across upper castes, OBCs and Dalits, which means it is likely to get the highest vote share. Second it appears to be the only party which is in contest on the highest number of seats, and thus is likely to win the maximum number of seats. Some experts cite the instance of 2012 elections, when the SP was fulfilling these two conditions and finally ended up winning 224 seats.

However, one severe challenge to this assumption comes from the fact that while 2012 was broadly a bipolar contest, 2017 is an absolute triangular fight – from Gautam Budh Nagar to Kushinagar and Moradabad to Lalitpur – thus making these assumptions weak. One challenging theory doing the rounds is that the BSP is coming to power in UP, which is why parks and statues made during Mayawati’s previous regime are being cleaned and repaired aggressively. An assumption adding weight to this theory is the low polling percentage recorded during some of the phases, which means the upper castes, considered the spine of BJP’s support, have not voted overwhelmingly. While the exact reasons for cleaning Mayawati’s parks remain unexplained, it won’t be appropriate to dismiss BJP’s performance by low voting percentage, as things appear to be different this time. While upper castes used to be the base of BJP’s electoral support in previous elections, it is the non-Yadav OBCs who have taken this responsibility since the 2014 elections. In this scenario, a low voting percentage may not mean BJP getting less votes despite a lesser turn-out of upper caste voters, as the party’s supporters from non-Yadav OBC castes are still casting their votes in its favour.

Though a lot of confusion still remains over the direction in which UP elections are going, it appears safe to assume that since all of these parties are locked in a triangular contest across the state, with their respective mass bases standing behind them, UP might head towards a hung mandate if the present situation persists.

Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.