VARANASI: “Yeh to BJP ka garh hai” (this is the centre for the BJP) is perhaps the one sentence on which every single political worker agrees on in this hotly contested election in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. And this garh is acting up, and that is something that the PM and his chief lieutenant BJP President Amit Shah have no tolerance for.

As a result Shah has been spending long days sewing up the loopholes, and plugging the leaks, in Varanasi. He has brought in scores of RSS workers, ABVP musclemen, legislators from neighbouring states, and at the time this writer was there at least 12 members of the Union Cabinet. This one was told by the local BJP leaders would extend to the ‘entire cabinet’ after the March 4 polling phase is over, and all resources can then be focused on Varanasi, the seat that holds PM Modi’s prestige.

The problem is that from being ‘certain’ Varanasi, with its five key Assembly segments, is giving the top BJP brass sleepless nights. It is refusing to be taken for granted, with a huge rebellion breaking out in the crucial Varanasi City South seat where seven term MLA Shyamdeo Roy Chaudhary has been replaced by the relatively unknown Neelkanth Tiwari. And this according him and his supporters has been done without informing him, with even the courtesy of a phone call being dispensed with by both PM Modi and Shah.

The rebellion was instant, and threatened to engulf this seat and push it straight into the arms of Rajesh Mishra, former MP, who is contesting as the Congress candidate from the Alliance. The fact that he is a Brahmin, well known in the community, and can now because of the alliance with the Samajwadi party bank on the Yadav, minority and some other backward votes as well drove the Chaudhary supporters straight into his arms.

This set off alarm bells, and had Shah rushing to camp in Varanasi with a five star hotel becoming the hub of the BJP campaign. Party workers still in two minds told this reporter that cash was flowing like water with almost every person spoken to in the city---from the rickshaw puller to the professor in Banaras Hindu University---speaking of the “huge” money being spent by the party in convincing not just the voters, but also its own leaders.

Shah met the ‘rebels’ including Chaudhary. Interestingly the city mayor, a BJP leader, who had been very active during PM Modi’s campaign in the Lok Sabha polls had also joined the rebels as the ex-candidate is well respected and liked in Varanasi, and has a support base extending beyond the BJP. The Mayor too has been spoken to by Shah and other leaders, and is now campaigning (to some extent) for the party. He is looking for a second term later this year when elections are due.

Chaudhary himself has been spoken to by Shah but is reportedly not convinced. He has has gone indoors with his residence insisting he has left the city, and this to knowledgeable supporters means basically that he will not be campaiging actively for the party.

Shah’s argument being spread amongst the BJP is that Chaudhary is now too “old” and has to make space for the younger leaders. To this the BJP rebels---and they are not in insignificant numbers--- point out that one, there are older candidates in the fray; and two, even if he had to be replaced the party could have looked for a more well known candidate rather than reposing faith in a person whose only claim was his RSS membership. Reportedly, a well known RSS local leader pushed Tiwari’s case.

Shah has managed to quell the rebellion to the extent that it is no longer visible on the streets. A senior BJP leader said that he was going out as per instructions to campaign, but was quietly furious that instead of being used in their own areas, they were all being sent to other neighbouring constituencies “where we are completely ineffective.” Probably this was the reason prompting Shah as well, so that the local leaders are kept on the road, but in areas where their influence is negligible.

This reporter witnessed the anger at a chance meeting of Congress candidate Rajesh Mishra, who is a former MP and well known in Varanasi. Inside a house in Varanasi’s fascinating gullies, he was meeting with a group of Brahmins mostly advocates. All were a who’s who in the list of Varanasi’s bar council, two former chairpersons, three current executive members and so on. They had all---as one by one they told The Citizen---canvassed for PM Modi in the last elections. But now they insisted they would be working for Mishra as the BJP and more specifically Shah had bypassed them and Chaudhary for a “two bit advocate that no one has even heard of.” The anger was palpable, they were all very vocal, on the record, and on video as carried by The Citizen twitter handle. Will you not be canvassing for the BJP candidate? No question of it, was the consensus here.

Mishra himself was confident of victory, insisting that he had the support of the Brahmins, and now also of the Samajwadi votes that included the minorities, sections of the other backward, and the Yadavs. He is well known in Varanasi though, far better than Tiwari whose name even BJP supporters on the streets could not remember. The vote for the party is for PM Modi, but clearly in an Assembly election this does not carry the enthusiasm that was visible in 2014.

The BJP is being given a tough fight in all the constituencies that it held in the city, although in UP the vote really comes together on polling day. But it is clear that there is no wave in its favour, in fact to the contrary in that the support is being cut into by the rebellion, demonetisation that has had a major impact on the daily wagers, the small scale industries like the stone cutters, and the very poor who have been further hit by price rise. However, the effort is huge and unmatched with Shah’s presence, money and campaign control having made a difference within days. As even the rebels had to admit, “from nowhere the BJP has improved in the last few days.” BJP leaders insist that the party is on the ascendant now and will win all the Assembly seats in PM Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency.

The BJP however, has shifted the campaign from development and demonetisation to communalism. This has become the thrust of the door to door campaign since PM Modi made his famous remarks about the qabristan and the shamshan ghat. Interestingly though, the shamshan ghat remarks have gone down very badly in Kashi with the opponents and the rebels drumming home the following counter: “have you ever heard of shamshan ghats in villages, only a Gujarati who is not from here can say that. Shamshan ghats have to be only near a water source but this PM is talking of setting these up in every village.” In every opposing group one or the other person raises this, and all others shake their head as if in disbelief.

The Hindus and the Muslims both insist that this campaign has had no impact. Why? “Because we have seen through all this, we have had enough communal violence to last us a lifetime and it affects everyone, not just one community,” said a senior advocate who was earlier with the BJP. “We hope nothing will happen, right now it is all fine, but you know they can spread anything at any time,” said a Muslim weaver who is well known in the area and has also contested elections earlier.

Whatever the reason, the communal diatribe is not holding at the moment. Not in the villages nor in the city. The electoral battle is caste based and intense in both the three urban-rural and two rural constituencies of this Lok Sabha seat. The last few days---polling here is on March 8---will be crucial as the attention of all political parties will shift to Varanasi with Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav scheduled for a road show, and the BJP moving away from a PM road show to an Amit Shah road show in the city. Allowing for the vote to turn in the last 24 hours as it often does in UP more than other states when the contest is as close as visible in all five seats here, right now the odds are even.

(Cover Photograph: Sitting BJP legislator Shyamdeo Roy Chaudhry ignited the spark of rebellion in the ranks)