OPINION: As Varanasi votes, Modi looks to maximise his victory margin

Shekhar Iyer

Varanasi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at party supporters as he leaves to file his nomination paper from Varanasi Lok Sabha parliamentary constituency, after offering prayers at the Baba Kaal Bhairav temple, in Varanasi, Friday, April 26, 2019. (PTI Photo)(

Varanasi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at party supporters as he leaves to file his nomination paper from Varanasi Lok Sabha parliamentary constituency, after offering prayers at the Baba Kaal Bhairav temple, in Varanasi, Friday, April 26, 2019. (PTI Photo)(

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi votes today in the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls — along with 12 other seats from Uttar Pradesh— a big question in everyone’s mind is whether the BJP will be able to retain its hold over UP, where it got a landslide victory in 2014? The BJP had won 71 of the 80 seats from UP. Its allies only two seats. The answer is varied this time but one thing is clear, the BJP realises that it faces one of the toughest battles because of new equations on the ground. The coming together of the SP, BSP and RLD has drastically altered the mood in UP. Many analysts see an aggregation of Opposition votes, votes received by the SP, BSP and RLD in each constituency adding up against the votes that the BJP got in 2014.

A wave in favour of Narendra Modi had enabled a 42.63% vote share for the BJP in 2014. In 2014, the SP’s 22.35% vote share and the BSP’s 19.77% vote share add up to 42.12%. With Ajit Singh-led RLD in the alliance, the opposition appears to have a clear advantage in numbers.

All this is true only if the elections are pure arithmetic. But they are not always.

So, if anyone is interpreting the 2014 election data to claim that the SP-BSP-RLD alliance can be expected to win at least 54 seats out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP, then that may not be accurate. The elections may be about the arithmetic of caste votes got by the parties five years ago, but the bigger factor is chemistry, which is in favour of Modi. Nobody disputes that Modi has managed to draw a large number of people in his campaign rallies. People on the ground, in several interviews, have said that they still back Modi because they think that only he can bring changes in the country. They agree that Modi has exhibited strong and decisive leadership. As voters, they are prepared to ignore their anger against the sitting BJP MP as they want to opt for Modi as Prime Minister again.

Varanasi : Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, BSP chief Mayawati, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Ajit Singh and other leaders wave at their supporters during an election campaign rally during the ongoing Lok Sabha polls, in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, Thursday,  May 16, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Varanasi : Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, BSP chief Mayawati, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Ajit Singh and other leaders wave at their supporters during an election campaign rally during the ongoing Lok Sabha polls, in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (PTI Photo)

A majority of the 18-19 age group still backs Modi. Similarly, many women voters are with the BJP. Even if some voters are in disagreement with the BJP, they cannot see an alternative among the leaders in the Opposition to choose from. Of course, leaders of the SP, BSP and the RLD have countered this argument. They have claimed that, in addition to the numbers, they have achieved the desired chemistry and cohesion between the parties.

But the big question is whether they will succeed in the transfer of votes— from the SP voters to the BSP candidates and from the BSP voters to SP candidates. There are claims that workers from the SP and the BSP have campaigned and worked together in all the constituencies. A lot of planning and organisation seem to have gone into this. Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh have addressed joint rallies and directed their workers to ensure that the alliance works on the ground. Leaders and workers from both sides have been sharing resources and responsibilities — they travel and campaign together.

We will know the impact of this coordination only when the results are known on May 23.

By the BJP’s own assessment, the SP-BSP alliance could have worked in 24 to 25 Lok Sabha constituencies, though the opposition leaders claim that they will win in more than 40 seats. Therefore, the 13 constituencies of UP that are polling today in the final phase of the Lok Sabha elections are especially crucial for the BJP since the party and its allies won all of these in the 2014 polls.

Modi almost touched base with voters in most of the constituencies in UP. In all, BJP launched 14 publicity campaigns, including with specific themes for first-time voters. Hundreds of BJP volunteers reached out to 24.81 crore beneficiaries of various schemes of the Modi government like providing electrification, gas connections, housing, and so on. In this battle of perception, the fight in Varanasi this time is not about a second chance for Modi. It is more about increasing the winning margin of Modi.

FIle photo of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. PTI

FIle photo of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
PTI

In his first Lok Sabha battle from Varanasi in 2014, Modi secured 5,80,000 votes to defeat Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party by a margin of 3,70,000 votes. Modi is seeking re-election from the same constituency and nobody in Varanasi thinks Modi will be defeated. So Modi’s campaign managers have given a call, fixing 7 lakh as his victory margin in the poll for Varanasi seat. This time, Modi wants his winning margin from Varanasi to be the highest in UP—if not in entire India.

In Modi’s second seat, Vadodara, in Gujarat, the margin of victory was 5,70,000 in 2014. This time, Modi gave up Vadodara and retained Varanasi.

People in Varanasi say the city, which is also known as Benaras or Kashi, has undergone a lot of change in the last five years. When Modi took over, Varanasi was crumbling under its own weight. Apart from providing gas connections to 1,00,000 families, free power connections to another 1,25,000 families, and houses to 15,325 families in the last five years, Modi also gave a big push to infrastructure projects, which has left voters impressed. The overhead electricity wires are now underground, the river ghats are clean, and the civic infrastructure has improved. Modi also built two cancer hospitals, a highway connecting the airport to the city, two more bridges over the Ganga, the Kashi-Vishwanath corridor, separate plants to treat sewage and solid waste and a rice research institute. For the first time in India’s history, river transport has begun starting with Varanasi. Last year, Modi inaugurated India’s first multi-modal terminal on the Ganga river in Varanasi and received the country’s first container cargo transported on inland waterways from Kolkata.

Kashi Vishwanath Temple to Ganga Ghat corridor is Modi’s dream project that will make Kashi Vishwanath Temple accessible to the pilgrims directly from the ghats along the Ganga, saving them the trouble of reaching it through congested, serpentine lanes. The project, costing Rs 600 crore, is expected to be complete this year. The 56-metre wide corridor will be over 300 meters in length.

A total of 13 projects worth Rs 913 crore have been sanctioned for Varanasi. Additionally, sewerage projects worth Rs 703.14 crore have been taken up. Varanasi is set to have zero sewer discharge in the holy river by November this year. With this, the flow of untreated sewer water from Varanasi city into the Ganga will be completely checked. Modi removed overhead power cables in Varanasi after a project to lay underground lines over 16 sq-km was completed last year. Laying underground cables for 50,000 consumers through the serpentine lanes and congested markets in one of the world’s oldest cities was quite a challenge.

All these schemes were directly monitored by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the execution was done at a rapid pace. “Modi was ‘hope’ in 2014. He is a ‘belief’ in 2019,” said a BJP office bearer, who works closely with the PMO on Varanasi projects but did not wish to be named. “Today, the change is visible.”

Finally, the buzz about Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contesting from Varanasi against Modi had promised to spice up the fight, but it died out.

With no other name, the Congress had to field Ajay Rai, a former MLA and its 2014 candidate. Rai polled only 75,000 odd votes in that election. The SP-BSP combine also failed to contain Modi’s contest. The SP replaced Shalini Yadav, who unsuccessfully contested the 2017 mayoral poll, with former BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav, who was dismissed from service two years ago after he posted a video on social media complaining about the quality of food served to jawans. But Tej Bahadur Yadav’s nomination papers were rejected by Election Commission, forcing the SP to fall back on its original choice.

In 2014, General VK Singh of BJP had the highest victory margin in the state when he won from Ghaziabad by 5,67,000 votes, followed by Bhola Singh of BJP in Bulandshahr, who managed a margin of 421,000 votes. Third on the list was Sanjiv Baliyan of the BJP, who won Muzaffarnagar by over 4,00,000 votes.

SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav won from Mainpuri by 3,64,000 votes. From his second seat of Azamgarh, Mulayam’s margin was much lower. It was only 62,304. His son, Akhilesh Yadav, wants the SP workers to ensure a bigger margin for his father. Now, Azamgarh is also vying with neighbouring Varanasi in the battle of margins. Other tall leaders who are expected to retain their seats with large majorities are Sonia Gandhi, in Rae Bareli and Union home minister Rajnath Singh, in Lucknow.

Given this scenario, the BJP remains confident about the outcome in UP though it has braced for some loss of seats.

- Shekhar Iyer, Senior Journalist