New Delhi: On 3 March, days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to hold his roadshow in Varanasi before the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in the city’s Gulab Bagh area was abuzz with activity.
Within the Gulab Bagh office, Sunil Oza, the party’s co-in charge of Uttar Pradesh responsible for Varanasi and Gorakhpur, was surrounded by workers who had questions about the PM’s visit and about results day, 10 March. Oza gave a patient hearing to all, and then rushed to a closed-door meeting.
“He has been working non-stop since the election campaigning took off. Apart from the meetings with senior leaders, he even spends time with the party workers and clears all their doubts. The way he merges with the crowd gives party workers the confidence to speak their minds,” said a party functionary who had come to meet Oza.
Winning the district is a prestige issue for the BJP, as it includes Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi. And win it did, as its alliance the NDA swept all eight seats in the district, just as it had done in 2017.
Some of the credit for this triumph went to Oza, because he is known to be one of the key persons managing poll strategy and election-related work for the PM in Varanasi.
The former Gujarat MLA, who had once rebelled and quit the BJP, only to return to the fold in 2011, is also said to be the key architect of Modi’s victory in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Varanasi. He is considered skilled in organisational affairs, and many within the party have credited this string of success to Oza’s “meticulous planning” and “astuteness”.
But Oza himself shuns the credit, claiming he is an ordinary BJP worker.
“We have done well in the elections as people realise only the BJP can deliver. PM Modi has a special bond with Varanasi and it is reflected in his actions too,” Oza told ThePrint.
“As far as managing the Lok Sabha constituency is concerned, there is a team that ensures all complaints are addressed swiftly and PM Modi always keeps a tab on any issue related to the constituency. He also holds a dialogue regularly with the people of Varanasi, and our victory here is a proof of people’s trust in PM Modi,” he added.
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Exit from BJP and return
Oza joined active politics in the 1990s, and is considered a staunch supporter of Hindutva. “He had also played a key role in the RSS’ Ayodhya movement of the 1990s,” said a party functionary.
A two-term MLA, Oza represented Bhavnagar constituency before leaving the BJP ahead of the 2007 assembly elections.
A source in the party aware of the developments told ThePrint that at one point, Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia, Modi and Oza were all quite close. “But things started to change post 2002, as Modi focussed more on showcasing Gujarat as the model of development and issues of ‘illegal temples’ being demolished etc. started cropping up, Oza started feeling alienated. He quit before the 2007 assembly elections,” the source said. Modi and Togadia are also known to have fallen out post-2002.
According to a senior party leader, Oza quit after he was denied a party ticket, and rebelled against Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat.
“He fought the elections as an independent candidate but lost. He later joined the Mahagujarat Janata Party (MJP) that was launched by former minister Gordhan Zadafia. But he left this party too after a few months and joined the BJP again,” the leader said.
In 2008, Modi had to stop the demolition of temples owing to the pressure from the VHP, and the ‘victory’ was celebrated by Sunil Oza, who was with MJP then.
“This is a Hindu victory. We are celebrating today (Friday) evening at Pathikashram circle. Modi had to bow before the anger of the people and retreat. He had done enough damage by destroying over 200 temples,” Oza had said.
But he rejoined the BJP in 2011. “After he rejoined, he became one of the most important leaders for Modi. He was made co-in charge of Uttar Pradesh by Amit Shah. He is soft-spoken and gives respect to all,” a senior BJP leader told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
Oza is also known to have a spiritual bent of mind.
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Style of functioning
Speaking to ThePrint, Rajendrasinh Rana, former Gujarat BJP president and former Bhavnagar MP, described Oza as a “sharp political strategist” who understands the “nerve of the people, which helps him to plan ahead”.
“He used to work in a bank in his early days. He was also closely associated with the RSS, especially the VHP. He is someone who is not only politically very sharp as far as organisational work is concerned, but he understands what people want. He can gauge the mood of the people and can analyse the situation very well. His strategic thinking is something that has been helping him in his organisational work in Varanasi too,” he added.
Rana said Oza was also associated with journalism, and used to run a Gujarati newspaper called Pagdandi.
“When he left the BJP in 2007, he also shifted his focus and attention to the newspaper. But after he rejoined, and later, got involved in Varanasi, there is no connection anymore,” said a party functionary. “For the party workers in Varanasi, he is the PM’s man and is quite powerful. But his nature is such that he is easily approachable,” he added.
A party functionary added that since 2014, Oza has made Varanasi his home, though he does visit Gujarat too.
A senior leader from the Gujarat unit of the BJP said there are two types of leaders in that state — those who like to publicise themselves and those who believe in doing their work. “Oza is the silent one who believes in focusing on his work and doing it tirelessly. Despite being so close to the PM and managing his parliamentary constituency, he has never thrown tantrums like others,” the leader added.
What Oza does in Varanasi
Organisationally speaking, Sunil Oza is co-in charge of the Varanasi and Gorakhpur regions, with the rest of the regions managed by Satya Kumar and Sanjiv Chaurasia. The BJP organisation in UP has earmarked six different regions — Braj, Avadh, Gorakhpur, Kashi, Paschim and Kanpur.
Despite their past differences in Gujarat, Oza was handpicked by PM Modi to supervise his election campaign in Varanasi in 2014. He has been in this role ever since.
A BJP leader said in Modi’s mind, whether a person has rebelled in the past or not is “immaterial”.
“PM Modi is the best judge of a person and character. He knows that Oza is balanced, nuanced but quiet at the same time. He ingests whatever is told and never keeps the focus on himself but on the work being done in Varanasi. The PM likes such people who can deliver and focus on working tirelessly. He’s also not very ambitious and all this worked in his favour,” the leader said.
“No one has a better understanding of politics than Modi ji. He not only knows politics well but also knows how to utilise leaders’ skills and when. Whether they have been a rebel in the past or not is immaterial,” the leader added.
As Modi’s point person, Sunil Oza oversees development projects in the Varanasi parliamentary constituency. According to a party functionary, he regularly briefs the PM on the projects and issues related to the constituency.
Apart from this, he visits the districts, holds organisational meetings, and is also the point person for any major political event, such as Modi’s roadshow in early March. “For political events he does everything from holding meetings, to ensuring participation of the cadre. For instance, PM Modi’s greetings were delivered to all the residents through the BJP cadre, and Oza supervised all of it. Apart from this, any organisational work in Varanasi and Gorakhpur is also managed by him,” said a BJP functionary.
“There is a sampark karyalaya (contact office) for the people to register their complaints, grievances or even submit their suggestions for the Lok Sabha constituency. Shiv Sharan Pathak, an RSS man, is in-charge of PM Modi’s constituency office in Varanasi. The local public relations office, often dubbed as ‘Mini PMO’, takes stock of all the grievances from the public,” the functionary added.
(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)
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