Modi's team of strategists in Varanasi, led by Sunil Oza, is working day and night to clinch another victory for the PM.
A day before filing his nomination from Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a mega roadshow in his constituency on Thursday, April 25. He is seeking a second term from this seat. Varanasi will go to polls in the last phase, on May 19.
While Modi’s close aide and Bhartiya Janta Party chief Amit Shah is at the helm of the party’s poll preparations at the national level, another Gujarati leader Sunil Oza is spearheading the team of strategists which is handling the macro- and micro-planning of poll preparations in the PM’s constituency. Four other big men in his team are Ratnakarji, Lakshman Acharya, Mahesh Chandra Srivastav and Nalin Kohli.
Oza’s management was visible on Thursday as the PM’s rally broke the previous footfall record. The team has also set the target of a massive victory for the PM—perhaps bigger than the previous one.
After dropping hints about Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contesting from Varanasi over the past month, the Congress, eventually, fielded Ajay Rai, a four-time BJP MLA who quit the party in 2009 after being denied ticket. Later, he joined the Samajwadi Party before moving to the Congress party. The regional alliance of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal has fielded Shalini Yadav. She was poached from the Congress party three days ago.
“Our only challenge is to maintain, if not increase, the victory margin of Modiji amid the fear of anti-incumbency across India. Even a small slide would be embarrassing for the PM and the BJP both,” a senior BJP leader said, adding that the entire team is working day and night to make sure that the target is achieved.
In 2014, Modi defeated Aam Admi Party chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal by a humongous margin of 3.37 lakh votes. Last time, Modi had gotten close to 5.8 lakh votes while Kejriwal bagged 2.09 lakh votes.
Oza, a former Bhavnagar MLA, heads the command in Varanasi
A close confidante of Modi, and former Bhavnagar MLA, Oza had supervised Modi’s campaign in the temple town during the last elections too. “From poll campaign to booth-level management to media engagements, Oza is meticulously planning everything along with the team,” says Naveen Srivastava, BJP spokesperson who has been shifted from Lucknow to Varanasi for a month to work closely with Oza’s team.
Originally from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Oza was once close to Modi’s arch-rival Pravin Togadia and had played a prominent role in the Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya movement of the 1990s. Interestingly, Oza was among a group of MLAs who had revolted against Modi and quit the BJP in 2007. He lost the polls as an independent candidate and later joined the Maha Gujarat Janta Party (MJP) floated by another rebel and former minister of state for home in Modi government, Gordhan Zadafia. Both returned to the BJP in 2011.
Ratnakarji, an RSS pracharak
Oza’s team consists of Ratnakarji, an RSS prachark who is the BJP’s organisational secretary at Varanasi, as per BJP’s tradition. This post is considered very important in the BJP as the person is supposed to be a link between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP. Apart from Kashi Prabhag, Ratnakarji is handling the charge of Gorakhpur BJP’s organisational secretary as well, since the party lost the parliamentary bypolls in Gorakhpur in 2018.
Lakshman Acharya, a Dalit MLC, is Modi’s door-to-door man
BJP’s Vice President and Member of Legislative Council Lakshman Acharya is a low-profile Dalit leader of the party. Acharya, who used to teach at RSS-run Sarasvati Shishu Mandir till 1977, had also participated in the Ram temple movement. Acharya has been working hard for BJP’s SC/ST outreach programme since the last few years.
Apart from handling other organisational work, Acharya is conducting door-to-door campaign across Varanasi since the past one week on Modi’s behalf. He is seeking votes for Modi, while explaining the accomplishments of the BJP government.
Mahesh Chandra Srivastav
Srivastava, an RSS man from a young age, is the chief of BJP’s Kashi Zone since 2018, after the post was vacated by Acharya. This zone includes 15 districts of eastern UP. Srivastava, who had worked tirelessly in 2014’s successful campaign, is considered to be in the good books of both Modi and Shah.
Besides, he belongs to the Kayasth community which has a sizeable presence in Varanasi and nearby districts. He is credited for several successful rallies of Modi and Shah in Uttar Pradesh.
Nalin Kohli, Modi’s media in-charge
The BJP’s suave national spokesperson Nalin Kohli, 48, who is also a Supreme Court advocate, has been camping in Varanasi since last 15 days. He is expected to be here till polling day. He is handling entire media operations from Varanasi.
“I would be spending almost a month in the constituency though I will be going to Delhi for a day or two in between,” Kohli tells this correspondent giving back-to-back interviews to various news channels at the BJP’s media cell established at a plush Surya hotel in Cantonment, Varanasi.
A senior BJP leader says, “The media team has been tasked with projecting national security and terrorism as major poll planks, apart from popularising Modi’s pet schemes among 17 lakh voters spread in two urban and three rural Assembly segments. They have to strongly counter opposition’s allegations on Rafale in effective words.”