Miffed that Narendra Modi's presence has been limited in Varanasi city on Thursday, Arun Jaitley has written to the Election Commission slamming the returning officer for denying permission to the BJP's Bharat Vijay rallies and the Ganga aarti scheduled in the city. Savera R Someshwar/Rediff.com reports from Varanasi.
At 4.30 pm on Thursday, Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial nominee, will land on a helipad at the famed Banaras Hindu University, ride in a motorcade that will wind through various areas of the city before he reaches the BJP campaign headquarters in Sigra, located in the heart of Vanarasi. Later in the evening, he will drive another approximately 25 to 30 kilometres to the airport from where he will leave for his next programme.
Outside BHU at Lanka Gate, beginning 11 am, BJP leaders Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, Ananth Kumar and other party workers will hold a dharna against what they claim is a 'partisan' returning officer and a 'blind' Election Commission.
An angry Jaitley said Modi's presence has been limited in Varanasi city on May 8 since the BJP has yet to receive permission for the party's Bharat Vijay rallies and the Ganga aarti scheduled in the city on Thursday.
Modi will address a scheduled rally in Rohania, one of Varanasi's two rural assembly constituencies (the Lok Sabha constituency, which jumped onto the national political consciousness after Modi decided to contest from here, has five assembly seats).
Jaitley has accused the returning officer, District Magistrate Pranjal Yadav, of 'highly partisan behaviour' and of strategising to deny Modi the opportunity to campaign in the city.
Asked if Modi's motorcade would require any permission, Jaitley said, "India is not under British rule, it is a free country. To drive on the roads of Varanasi we don't need any damn permission from this returning officer. Just like you can drive, Mr Modi can also drive on the roads."
Bristling at the Election Commission, he accused the Commission of turning a blind eye towards the returning officer, who he accused of interfering in a free and fair electoral process. "We are not a banana republic that a prime ministerial candidate is not allowed to address a meeting in his own constituency by a pliant returning officer," Jaitley said.
Jaitley has, in his letters to the Commission, outlined three instances of 'partisan behaviour,' but seemed particularly miffed that permission was denied to hold a rally at Beniabagh, which is situated in the heart of a Muslim-dominated area of the city, on May 8.
The ground, which is a popular location for rallies and public events, is located close to the home of one of Varanasi's greatest sons, the late Ustad Bismillah Khan.
But the location is seared in the history of the city for an ignominious reason. Twenty-three years ago, during the 1991 general election, BJP candidate Shirish Chand Dixit reportedly delivered a volatile speech in Beniabagh. The communal violence that followed resulted in loss of both life and property and caused a deep tear in the city's social fabric. Dixit, incidentally, won the election.
While there are claims that the BJP had proposed an alternate location, Cutting Memorial Ground, it was a claim that Jaitley hotly denied.
"Why would we accept a ground that can hold only 2,000 people for a Modi rally?" he asked angrily. "And if the Intelligence Bureau has said there is a threat to Modi in the city, which is why one of the reasons why he (the district magistrate) claimed permission was denied to us, is there no threat to Modi in this smaller ground?"
Jaitley was also miffed that the BJP had not received permission for a Ganga puja for Modi, when similar permission has already been granted to Aam Aadmi Party leader and AAP candidate Arvind Kejriwal.
"We haven't got a shred of paper in our hand," Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said.
By 10 pm, the returning officer, Yadav, had held a press conference confirming that permissions had been granted for all the Modi events in the city except for the rally at Beniabagh.
The BJP, which is clearly looking at the returning officer's actions as an affront, has said the permissions have come to late for it to organise the rally, the Ganga Puja or the meeting with 150 eminent citizens, says it will go ahead with its dharna.
The city's administration has moved into action and CRPF forces have been moved to Lanka Gate to ensure the protest takes place peacefully.
There have already been skirmishes between BJP and Aam Aadmi supporters in the city; including one where Somnath Bharti, who was part of Arvind Kejriwal's 49-day ministry in New Delhi, was attacked at Varanasi's popular Pappu tea stall by a BHU professor. The city's administration is hoping to avoid any violence on May 8.
Jaitley has, meanwhile, sent three letters to Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath, demanding that the returning officer be replaced immediately. A fourth letter, released at 8.20 pm, informed the Election Commission that since the requisite permissions have not been granted, the BJP will not hold any rallies in Varanasi City on May 8. The statement was echoed by Amit Shah in his press conference, which was held soon after the one that was held by the Election Commission, as was the demand that the 'biased' returning officer be replaced immediately.
Shah had not said a word at the press conference anchored by Jaitley.
But, asked to comment on the Central Bureau of Investigation's clean chit to him in the Ishrat Jahan case, Shah said, "Dhanyawad (Thank you)." And walked out with a smile.
The architect of Modi's campaign in Uttar Pradesh is, however, clearly pleased with the turn of events. In an interview with Aaj Tak, he couldn't help smiling when he said the administration's action had worked in their favour and had reinvigorated the Varanasi voter's interest in Modi's campaign.
Agency reports add:
In a separate press conference, Shah said his party rejected the Returning Officer's gesture as the approval came too late.
"The approval has come 11 hours before the rally, which includes mostly the night time. If permission was to given, why this delay"? Shah said.
Modi's programmes remain cancelled as the approvals have come too late, he added.
Shah accused the Returning Officer of "playing politics" over the matter and accused him of granting approval so late intentionally as part of his "partisan" approach.
He charged such late approval shows that the Returning Officer was working at the behest of someone else because Arun Jaitley had clearly written to him and to the EC at 8 pm that there was no time left for the rally now and therefore BJP didn't need the permission anymore.
"This is a big joke with the people of Varanasi that the BJP candidate from here and its Prime Ministerial nominee was not being given permission to hold a rally," he said.
"The administration claims that it was denying permission due to security concerns. We want to know what has led to these apprehensions. If there is any intelligence alert by any agency, they should place the same before the public and if there is no such intelligence report, then the EC must immediately remove the Returning Officer," Shah said.
Asked whether the permission was denied due to Veeniabagh being a communally sensitive area, Shah said "yesterday I went there and saw meetings being held by three different parties. If that area is not communally-sensitive for Congress, SP and BSP, then why is BJP being singled out?"
"The Returning Officer is certainly working at the behest of someone and he can't ensure free and fair polls," Shah alleged while adding that the BJP will hold peaceful protest against his "partisan" approach.
Image: The Ganga aarti at Varanasi. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons