It was open war between the Election Commission (EC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Thursday, with the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi attacking the poll panel by name, charging it with unfairness and bias.
Whether it was Azamgarh or Varanasi, Modi said the Commission was trying to act as a barrier between him and the people at the instance of ‘maa-bete ki sarkar’(referring to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi). At another place, he claimed ‘baap-bete ki sarkar’ (referring to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav) had launched an assault on his fundamental rights.
“Now, even the Election Commission cannot get the maa-bete ki sarkar to win. Gone, they’re gone,” he said, with gestures that the crowd lapped up and burst into loud cheers.
This was the first time any leader had alleged in the course of these elections that the EC was acting to protect the interests of the Congress. After the rally, some BJP supporters conceded that such an assault on an institution like EC was unwarranted. But the crowd was thrilled.
Ridiculing the local administration (which is under direct supervision and control of EC but has been appointed by the state’s Samajwadi Party government), Modi said: “Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde has said Modi’s security is foolproof, Finance Minister P Chidambaram has said Modi has addressed 400 rallies but has come to no harm, and yet EC is worried about the security of one man.”
“How many miles is Banaras from here,” Modi asked in Rohaniya, a largely rural area. “Twelve km,” shouted the crowd. “Am I safe 12 km outside Banaras but not in Banaras city,” he asked, throwing in, rhetorically, a bit of drama: “Agar desh ke liye mujhe jaan deni pade toh isse bada karya aur kya ho sakta hai? (What could be a greater act than sacrificing my life for the sake of the nation?)”
All through the day, BJP workers kept alive a campaign against the Election Commission. Denied the permissions to hold rallies in Beniabagh (a mixed Hindu-Muslim locality) and to attend the Ganga Maha Aarti on the banks of the river, Modi turned this into a political opportunity. He addressed a meeting of intellectuals at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and led a roadshow to the BJP headquarters in Sigra. The result: Every road in Varanasi, taken over by BJP workers, was jammed for more than an hour and a half.
Senior party leaders Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah, meanwhile, led the protest at the city’s Lanka chowk. Jaitley was brutal in his assessment of the poll body. “Men in constitutional offices need to be bolder. Timid men can dwarf high offices,” Jaitley said. He asked the poll panel to provide a level playing field to all candidates. “Rahul Gandhi can have a roadshow in Varanasi but Modi cannot have a rally. The security card is selectively used,” he alleged. Gandhi is scheduled to hold a roadshow in the city on May 10.
Simultaneously in Delhi, Venkaiah Naidu and Ravi Shankar Prasad led BJP workers from party headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, to the EC office nearly two km away. The police issued prohibitory orders around the EC office and stopped the protest 100 metres from the poll panel building.
The mystique of Varanasi's Beniabagh, the place where Modi was not permitted to address a rally, is unique. It is located near the densely populated Godoliya. Raj Narain, one of the city's most well-known and famous sons, who humbled Indira Gandhi in 1977 in Rae Bareli, addressed several meetings here. His bust stands in the middle of Beniabagh as a proud testament to resistance to the Emergency.
Beniabagh was once the centre of Varanasi. Over the years, a vast Muslim settlement has come up around the locality and it is one of the most congested areas of the city today. But that has not stopped politicians from addressing meetings here. Both Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav have held election meetings here. During the 2012 state elections, Rahul Gandhi, too, had held a meeting here.
The long and the short of the meeting cancellation fiasco is that it is Modi, as many times before, who has wrested the initiative. Without breaking any rule, he has captured the pulse of urban Varanasi. At Thursday's rally, he said he did not mind the cancellation of the Ganga Maha Aarti. "I will return. When Ganga calls me, I will lay my head in her lap and no power on earth will be able to stop me."