Varanasi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might be showcasing the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project in this election, but the assembly constituency in which it falls, Varanasi South, is giving them jitters.
“Modi Yogi se ber nahi, Neelkanth teri khair nahi (we have nothing against Modi & Yogi, but Neelkanth Tiwari you are gone)” is the common refrain in Varanasi South where the BJP has fielded sitting MLA Neelkanth Tiwari.
The BJP is pulling out all stops to ensure that Varanasi South doesn’t become a spoiler in Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had won all eight assembly segments in 2017.
In the past few days, PM Modi campaigned across Varanasi and did a massive roadshow, interacting with voters and party workers. In a meeting with intellectuals in Varanasi Saturday, PM Modi said UP needs stability and a second term for the BJP government.
The PM’s roadshow that took place Friday included Varanasi South also to garner support for the local MLA. The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor located in the Varanasi South area, was inaugurated by Modi last November.
However, unpopularity of the sitting MLA is not an issue limited to Varanasi South. Travel around eastern UP and party MLAs’ absence and inaccessibility seems to be a larger problem.
BJP sources claim that the party leadership was aware of the anti-incumbency against individual MLAs and there was a plan to replace a large number of them in this election. However, the plan had to be changed following the exit of many ministers and BJP MLAs who switched their loyalty to the Samajwadi Party right before the polls.
But for PM Modi’s popularity, public sentiments against sitting MLAs could have posed a serious problem, concede BJP functionaries.
What the voters and BJP leaders say
In Varanasi South, BJP minister Neelkanth Tiwari is pitted against Samajwadi Party’s Kameshwar Nath Dixit while the Congress has fielded Mudita Kapoor. According to party sources, PM Modi had to pitch in more aggressively to counter the narrative that had been building up in the Varanasi South constituency.
ThePrint visited the constituency and interacted with the residents and traders. One of the major issues that the voters have been raising is the fact that Tiwari is hardly visible, and is unapproachable.
Amod Dutt Shastri, a 40-year-old who has a degree in astrology from Varanasi’s Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya, is a big admirer of PM Modi, who, he believes, has elevated the stature of the holy city as an MP.
However, Shastri’s stance changes quickly the moment the local MLA’s name is mentioned. “The sitting MLA won his election due to the Modi wave, otherwise he is someone who had lost even the corporation election. Modi ji toh theek hain but MLAs kaam nahi karte (Modi is fine but MLAs don’t work). I have never seen him in the area,” he said, but remained non-committal on whether he will give a chance to another party this time.
The Kashi Vishwanath and Kaal Bhairav temples, and many other temples, are situated in different areas of the constituency.
The BJP has been winning the seat for the past several years. Shyamdev Roy Chaudhary of the party won the Varanasi South seat seven times in consecutive assembly elections. However, Tiwari replaced him in 2017, and delivered too.
“Dada (Chaudhary) ka ticket kaat kar inko (Tiwari) diya tha. Even then the issue was raised but by then a decision had been taken. He was able to win due to the Modi wave and if he manages to win it will be solely because of the work undertaken by Modi ji and the campaigning that took place by PM Modi in the last few days,” said a senior BJP leader who didn’t wish to be named.
“Dada had an easy-going nature which is missing in the present MLA,” he added.
ThePrint reached Twiari over phone and text messages, but there was no response till the publication of this report.
Tough fight this time
This election, Tiwari is pitted against SP’s Dixit, who appears to have a chance.
“Dixit is a mahant (priest) and has a good reputation. He is a young leader and hence has an appeal among the youth. The Congress has also fielded a weak candidate to give Dixit a walkover. I think taking a decision will be tough this time as Modi ji has also delivered what he promised. But many are not happy with the MLA,” said Jai Kesri, a businessman who owns a shop and guesthouse in Varanasi.
It’s not just temples. Markets also play a crucial role in this constituency.
“Despite all this, many in the constituency are quite upset with the MLA and claim he is unapproachable… He has also not been visible on the ground in the past few years. The Kashi Vishwanath corridor also falls under the same constituency and despite so much work people are expressing their unhappiness,” a second senior BJP leader said on condition of anonymity.
The party is also concerned about Brahmin votes getting split between Tiwari and Dixit. “While Brahmin votes will get split, the Muslim vote may go to Dixit due to the Samajwadi Party,” said the leader.
The seat reportedly has around 80,000 Muslim voters, 60,000 Brahmins, 40,000 Vaishyas, and 11,000 Yadavs, among others.
Many in the constituency view Dixit not as a candidate of the SP but as an individual. “He is contesting from SP but as far as we are concerned we are viewing him as an individual. Whenever there is some crisis and we approach him he is always willing to help,” said Shyam Singh, a resident of the constituency.
“I can’t say who will win but the seat is definitely going to witness a fight,” Singh added.
What the BJP is hoping for
To tide over the issues raised by the people and the feedback it received from the party at the local level, the BJP has been focusing on highlighting the work undertaken by the government for the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor and how it has transformed the city including the fact that PM Modi has been personally monitoring it.
In 2017, the NDA had won all the eight seats under the Varanasi district.
“We are confident of doing well this time around too. People have appreciated the work done by the Modi and Yogi (Adityanath) government. The way Varanasi has been transformed, the work on the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, the infrastructure work and the welfare measures including free ration are being appreciated by all. The Opposition is trying to spread a fake narrative that we are facing trouble on some seats. There is no truth in that,” said UP BJP spokesperson Harish Srivastava.
Many in the party are confident that the push by PM Modi in the last few days will help them secure even the difficult seats.
“Yesterday (Friday)’s roadshow received a huge response and we are confident that it will translate into votes. There is bound to be some anti-incumbency against the government but people know only BJP can deliver,” said Srivastava.
The voters, despite being critical of the MLA, remain happy with the work done by PM Modi.
“Modi and Yogi ji humpe dhayan de rahe hai, toh hum bhi denge (PM Modi and CM gave us attention, so we will also give them attention). They have transformed the city. Right from construction of roads, streetlights, to better footpaths, our Varanasi is becoming better. I get Rs 500 as widow pension too and I have heard that this money will be increased further,” said Shiv Kumari, a resident of South Varanasi.
There are some sitting BJP MLAs in Uttar Pradesh who have been seeking public apology for any mistakes that they may have made in the past five years with a hope that people will give them another chance.
Bhupesh Chaubey, MLA from Robertsganj assembly constituency in Sonbhadra district, had surprised many when he stood on the chair, held his ears and did sit-ups, begging forgiveness from the voters during an election rally.
Many in the party are quite confident that the Modi factor will “save these MLAs” once again.
“The MLAs have worked hard but you can’t please everyone. They have sought forgiveness and we are sure that people will give them another chance. People are voting for BJP and not just individual MLAs,” said a third senior BJP leader who didn’t wish to be named.
Varanasi South will vote on 7 March in the final phase of the assembly elections. The counting of votes is set to take place on 10 March.