Not far from the old, two-storey house of Varanasi Cantonment MLA Jyotsna Srivastava in Shivaji Nagar, sewer waters overflow into the damaged roads, revealing the sorry fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream to turn Varanasi into a Kyoto like heritage destination has met with offensively lax efforts by the city’s three legislators, all from the BJP.

Inside the house, a tense Nandan Verma, the chief staff of the four-time MLA Jyotsna Srivastava, who announced retirement voluntarily to secure son Saurabh’s candidature from the same seat, is carefully jotting down “jan sabha” requests from youth leaders. “How is the situation there, will a couple of public meetings change the mood in BJP’s favour?” Verma asks a booth-level volunteer from Ranipur restlessly, betraying the national party’s fear that it will not be a smooth sail here.

This anxious foreboding was visible in the BJP’s war room in Sigra, too, where a septuagenarian worker confides: “Candidate selection has been faulty. The Congress will get undivided minority votes because of its tie-up with the SP and the lack of a competition from the BSP, which is weak in main Varanasi.”

The Muslim population is, as per Congress’ war-room experts, 75,000 in Varanasi Cantonment, 95,000 in Varanasi North, and 120,000 in Varanasi South (the figures could not be independently verified by The Sunday Guardian). Most experts said only an intensely polarised election can help the BJP here.

Ardent BJP supporters, however, are confident the majority votes will consolidate. “The Hindu votes will go one way for the BJP,” declared Pramod Kumar Srivastava, an advocate.

The BSP’s Sujit Kumar Maurya and Rakesh Tripathi, who are contesting from Varanasi North and Varanasi South, respectively, are hoping to cut into the lotus’ upper caste and non-Yadav OBC votes, particularly Mauryas. Congress’ Rajesh Kumar Mishra, candidate from Varanasi South, may also divide the upper caste votes against a vulnerable Neelkanth Tiwari, who is seen by his cadre as “inaccessible”.

The Congress is calculated. In their “mohalla sabhas”, their leaders talk about Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s development work. Mentions of the “communal leaning” of the BJP are not made frequently, to avert the elections from turning into a Hindu-Muslim identity war, which they would lose. “The Akhilesh government has increased electricity supply to 15-16 hours a day from mere three-four hours a day five years ago,” Dr Kumar Vaibhav, Youth Congress general secretary, UP Congress, told the crowd at the Congress’ headquarters.

Congress’ national coordinator Manoj Kumar Singh, raised the pitch. “The PM did not realise the dreams that he sold to you in 2014. Small traders are ruined by ‘note ban’,” he alleged, as the crowd, mostly Hindu, worked up.

At Khajuri, Congress’ Varanasi North candidate Samad Ansari told people that the “PM is behaving as Gujarat’s Chief Minister. Money and projects are siphoned off to Gujarat. Varanasi did not get anything.”

But in Muslim localities, the theme changed. In the quaint house of a local Congress leader in Doshipura, where nearly 500 Muslim youths had gathered, Zafarullah Zafar tells the audience they have to vanquish Modi at any cost. “He (PM Modi) started his term in Varanasi. You will end his term in Varanasi,” Zafar, a popular Youth Congress leader and district president, Varanasi Congress, thundered to the crowd.

When the meeting was over, Congress leaders told the accompanying Muslim youths to vote en-bloc for the “hand”, but not to make their choice apparent. “Don’t make this into a Hindu-Muslim issue, else the BJP will benefit from Hindu consolidation,” Simran Sardar, general secretary of Bihar Congress’ minority cell, told the boys, as all walked through the narrow, dimly lighted streets of Doshipura, flanked on both sides by overlapping, shoddy houses.

The Muslim clerics are in action. Haji Baba, a respected local cleric, has asked his men to ensure there is no division of the Muslim votes. “There is an internal arrangement between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP. You must see through this,” he told an audience of Muslim youths in Lallapura.

Numbers discourage the BJP. In 2012, Abdul Samad of SP and Rabiya Kalam of Congress polled 37,434 votes and 37,029 votes, respectively, which together was way ahead of the 47,980 votes polled by BJP’s Ravindra Jaiswal, who won from Varanasi North. “Jaiswal’s position is worse this time. Ashok Singh, as an independent, will cut his 8,000-10,000 upper caste votes,” Congress’ Manoj Singh said.

In Varanasi Cantonment, Congress and SP together would have won hands-down in 2012. SP’s 2012 candidate Ashfaq Ahmad had secured 37,922 votes and Congress’ Anil Srivastava had finished second with 45,066 votes. The BJP polled 57,918 votes.

Congress’ Zafarullah Zafar, who was a probable candidate for the Varanasi North seat, said the Congress and SP votes will transfer to each other swiftly. “I had to back out because the central leadership decided that SP’s Samad Ansari will have to be accommodated on a Congress ticket. But that does not stop me from campaigning zealously for him,” Zafar told this reporter.

The scene at the BJP war-room is sombre despite hope for a “Modi magic”. “Varanasi South is our weakest link,” admitted at least three BJP workers, who were sitting on the verandah in the BJP’s Sigra war-room. They said: “In (Varanasi) South, incumbent Shyamdeb Roy Choudhary was a seven-time MLA. They dropped him due to the age-factor but not accommodating anybody from his family is a blunder. Neelkanth Tiwari is a lawyer. They could have got somebody better.” When asked if Tripathi enjoyed a people-to-people connect, the workers asked: “When he’s a stranger to us, what bond can he possibly have with the people?”

In Varanasi Cantonment, Congress’ Anil Srivastava will divide the Kayastha votes of the BJP’s Saurabh Srivastava, whose candidature had invited protests from the BJP cadre. In the Cantonment area, there were more SP-Congress supporters to be spotted than BJP supporters.

But war-room people have put their faith in PM Modi’s charisma. “Modiji will salvage the situation. He won’t let go of his constituency so easily,” they told this reporter, adding it was on the special request of the BJP’s Varanasi legislators that PM Modi agreed to spare as many as three days in the constituency and nearby districts. The emergency meeting, the war-room guys said, was called to make a detailed assessment of the BJP’s “tough fight”. The PM was apprised of the same.

In the Hindu areas of the holy city, the one-sided support for PM Modi was palpable, especially among the younger voters. “Akhilesh has done good work, but we will vote in Modi’s name,” asserted a group of young boys who had thronged a pakoda stall at Lahtara on a Sunday evening. The feeling resonated in Sigra, and also in Tilayabagh, where a housewife in a grocery store was joined by other customers in pledging support for the PM. “It was only after PM Modi won from Varanasi that development work started,” said store-owner Ravi Gupta.

However, CM Akhilesh’s supporters said he has done good work throughout. “The 100-number police vans are to be found everywhere in Varanasi. Dial 100 any time and a police van will arrive in 10 minutes,” said a taxi-driver Santosh, who belongs to the Cantonment area. He added that ambulance services are available on a phone-call and so are special vans for pregnant women.

In the five other constituencies on the outskirts of Varanasi—Rohaniya, Sevapuri, Pindra, Shivpur and Ajagara—the general perception is the SP-Congress alliance will manage to perform well in the first three, while the BSP will retain the last two which it had won in 2012.

“Wrong. We will wrest out Shivpur for sure,” BJP’s senior cadre Ajay Krishna Tripathi and others said confidently. “BSP’s incumbent MLA from Shivpur, Uday Lal Maurya has defected to the BJP, cementing non-Yadav OBCs like Maurya,” they added. “The BSP candidate, Virendra Singh is a Congress turncoat and he is not finding acceptance from the BSP’s core voters. A chunk of the Dalit votes will move to the BJP,” Tripathi and company explained. But Congress leaders contested the claim. “It’s a BSP vs alliance in Shivpur. BJP doesn’t exist there. In 2012, they finished fourth, behind the SP and the Congress, which together polled more votes than the winner,” said Zafar. But some Congress insiders, on the condition of anonymity, admitted that the “going is tough for SP candidate Anand Mohan in Shivpur and the ‘elephant’ may win”.

All of them, however, were confident that Ajay Rai, Congress incumbent from Pindra, would definitely retain his seat. “He is somebody who turns up at our daughters’ weddings. He is seen through thick and thin,” seconded locals in Pindra.

In Rohaniya and Sevapuri, where brothers Mahendra Singh Patel and Surendra Singh Patel reign, the SP said their incumbents would have a cakewalk on 8 March when all eight constituencies of Varanasi go to the hustings. But BJP insiders said they are hopeful of winning Rohaniya if they are able to break the consolidation of Patels behind the SP. “Apna Dal, which has a sway over the Patels, is strongly backing us,” they said. Apna Dal’s Anupriya Patel had won the seat in 2012 by a comfortable margin but she vacated it after being elected MP in 2014. In the bylections, SP’s Mahendra Singh Patel, who had not contested in 2012, won easily.

“In Rohaniya, most people will root for BJP’s Surendra Narayan Singh Audhey supported by Apna Dal. Independent candidate Naga Yadav will cut the SP’s votes and ensure a BJP win,” said most people interviewed by this reporter in Rohaniya. “Even a lunatic will blindly vote for the BJP in Modi’s name,” added Virendra Pratap, a local.

But in the less urban areas, SP and BSP supporters poured in. “We will thump our chest while voting for Mayawati,” an aggressive 20-something Vijay Kanojiya shouted in the market. But Shubham Maurya disagreed: “Patel brothers have done good work, and, UP ko ye saath pasand hai,” he said, borrowing words from the SP-Congress’ election catch-phrase.

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