Sunil Kumar Bind, 37, spent six days at the office of S Rajalingam, the returning officer and district magistrate of Varanasi. A municipal contractor who comes from a family of boatmen, he wanted to contest the Lok Sabha election against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Six days later, Rajalingam handed him a rejection slip.

Bind was not alone. Of the 41 people who had filed nominations, 33 were rejected, leaving Varanasi with its least competitive electoral fray in decades. Compared to 26 candidates in 2019 and 42 in 2014, there are only seven candidates contesting elections in Varanasi this time.

Eight applicants, including those whose nominations were accepted, told Scroll that this was by design.

They allege that initially, Rajalingam and his assistant returning officer processed nominations at a snail’s pace. Later, they spent hours going through the affidavits filed by at least 14 independent candidates linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

On May 14, the last day to file nominations, the returning officer accepted 27 applications. But by evening, his office informed the applicants – including Bind – that their affidavits had problems. For instance, many of them had not been administered oaths, a crucial prerequisite for nomination. It is prescribed by Article 84A of the Constitution, where applicants have to swear allegiance to the Constitution to “uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India”.

The oath had to be administered by Ramalingam or his assistant returning officer. The guidelines laid out in the Election Commission of India handbook for returning officers instructs them to “advise the candidate to make the oath or affirmation immediately after presenting their nomination papers and in any case not later than the day previous to the date of the scrutiny”.

However, applicants told Scroll that the returning officer did not advise them to take the oath, violating guidelines laid down by the Election Commission of India.

One of the applicants, Harpreet Singh, said that he specifically asked the election officials to administer him the oath. “I made the request thrice to the returning officer and thrice to the assistant returning officer,” he said. “But they just kept ignoring me.”

During the scrutiny of the applications on May 15, officials cited these problems to reject the affidavits of 33 applicants from Varanasi.

“This election is not an election,” a dejected Bind said. “We are given rations for two square meals and asked to shut up and be happy in this country. We are not free people.”

Scroll sent questions to the Election Commission of India and returning officer S Rajalingam. This story will be updated if they respond.

PM Narendra Modi walks with his party leaders on the day he files his nomination papers for the general elections in Varanasi. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

May 7 to May 10: Eight nominations filed

Varanasi will vote on June 1 – the seventh and last phase of the Lok Sabha elections. The window to file nominations in the temple town opened on May 7.

Vinay Tripathi, an advocate in Varanasi who wanted to contest on a Log Party ticket, took a small walk from his chambers to the returning officer’s office five minutes away. He wanted to collect the treasury challan, the nomination form and Form 26 to fill in his nomination.

A treasury challan is the receipt an applicant receives after making the mandatory security deposit of Rs 25,000 for contesting a general election. Similarly, applicants have to also fill and submit a nomination form and Form 26, which is also called the affidavit, to the returning officer.

“After I was done, it felt like I had gone to Pakistan and met with the commander-in-chief and returned,” said Tripathi. “There was a long queue at the district magistrate’s office. And most of the people there were local workers of the BJP. They let their friends slip into the queue and slowed down the whole process. It was excruciating.”

Hemant Yadav, an educationist contesting from the Manviya Bharat Party, confirmed this. Yadav managed to get a treasury challan after spending hours in the queue on May 7. “But when I asked for the form, the official asked me to come the next day,” he told me. “This was unusual because one can get the treasury challan and the form together.”

Yadav spent hours in the queue on May 8 and 9 but with no luck. “The officials only came up with excuses,” he said. “I had to alert local journalists and this became news the next day.Only then did I get a form on May 10.”

Once the forms were distributed, Tripathi and Yadav estimated that more than hundred people were in the queue to submit them and contest Varanasi.

Yet, the website of the Election Commission of India shows that over four days – May 7 to May 10 – the returning officer only collected eight affidavits.

These belong to candidates of the Indian National Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), Yuga Thulasi Party, Janseva Gondwana Party, Rashtriya Samajwadi Jankranti Party, Bahadur Aadmi Party and independent candidate Sanjay Kumar Tiwari.

“The returning officer had a simple tactic to kill time,” said 55-year-old Paras Nath Keshari of the Rashtriya Samajwadi Jankranti Party, whose affidavit was received on May 8, thanks to an organised group of lawyers and workers. “In the first four days, he spent only four hours in his office every day and took two hours on every candidate. It seems the administration does not want more than 11-12 candidates in Varanasi this year.”

Keshari’s nomination was accepted on May 15. On May 17, he withdrew. Asked why, he said: “I cannot talk about it right now.”

The nomination process in Varanasi did not take place on May 11 and May 12 because it was a weekend. The coming week was going to be harder for aspiring candidates.

May 13: Six nominations filed

When Sanjay Kumar Tiwari showed up at the Rajalingam’s office on May 13, he was stopped at a security barricade outside. He had submitted his affidavit to the returning officer on May 10 and had been asked to rectify a few mistakes and submit it again on May 13.

“I was held up at the barricade at 10 am and made to wait there for six hours,” Tiwari said that evening. “They gave me no reasons, and just did not let me go in.”

Comedian Shyam Rangeela, who had announced his intention to contest from Varanasi, described a similar complication in a video shared on X that day.

Bind told me that he was thrown out of the premises by police officials.

“Ajay Rai of the Congress went in. Besides that, only their people are allowed inside,” said Tiwari, a chartered accountant based in Delhi, referring to BJP members. “They have been sitting inside the returning officer’s chambers for hours.”

Rajalingam received affidavits from six independent candidates on May 13. A look at the precedents of these independents gives a hint of what Tiwari meant by “their people”.

At least five of the six independents – Vikas Kumar Singh, Neeraj Singh, Sachin Kumar Sonkar, Amit Kumar Singh and Shivam Singh – are BJP functionaries in Varanasi, their social media activity shows.

The Facebook profile of Shivam Singh, 29, says that he is the BJP vice president of the Bageshwari mandal in Varanasi. Vikas Kumar Singh, 34, is a member of the Rajarshi Mandal – a group of BJP office-bearers working in the temple town. Sachin Kumar Sonkar is an office-bearer in the local BJP Scheduled Caste Morcha. Neeraj Singh, 46, was the BJP contender in the city’s Dithori Mahal ward in last year’s municipal election. Amit Kumar Singh, 30, describes himself as a member of the local Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha.

Shivam Singh with BJP president JP Nadda and Amit Kumar Singh with Prime Minister Modi. Photos from Facebook.

The affidavits filed by these five men were mostly incomplete. Sonkar’s affidavit, for instance, did not even mention his age or phone number. They were all notarised by advocate Kamlesh Singh, who also notarised the affidavit of the sixth independent candidate, Sonia Jain, whose affidavit was also poorly filled.

Speaking to Scroll, only Amit Kumar Singh denied that he was associated with the BJP, though his Facebook has at least two posts from this month where he is attending BJP events.

Vikas and Sachin told me that they were contesting because they had the right to.

Shivam said that his affidavit would ultimately be rejected. “I only filled it because I wanted to meet the DM [district magistrate],” he said. “He is a busy man,”

Vikas Singh and Sachin Sonkar (bottom centre) in a BJP poster welcoming Modi to Varanasi from February this year. Photo from Facebook.

Gagan Prakash, the candidate with Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), which has allied with the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in Uttar Pradesh, said that despite police restrictions, he managed to plough his way inside the returning officer’s office on May 13.

“He [Rajalingam] just refused to accept my fresh affidavit,” said Prakash, who had submitted his affidavit on May 8 and had been asked by the returning officer to correct errors and file a fresh one.

That evening, Prakash shot off an angry letter to the Election Commission of India in Delhi, alleging that he could not submit his corrected affidavit before Rajalingam on May 10 and May 13.

“The returning officer of Varanasi Lok Sabha is illegally conspiring to deliberately reject the affidavit of this applicant so that he cannot contest the Lok Sabha elections,” Prakash wrote.

May 14: 27 nominations filed

The deadline for filing nominations in Varanasi was May 14. The first two people to file their papers that day were Narendra Modi and his dummy candidate, Surendra Narayan Singh. Major parties often register dummy candidates who can step into the fray in the event that the main candidate’s papers are rejected. The ceremony was splashed across news channels, with visuals of the prime minister handing over his papers to Rajalingam, who went through them carefully.

By the time Modi had filed his nomination, it was already noon. The nomination process was going to close at 3 pm, in accordance with election guidelines.

A new crop of independent candidates linked to the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh appeared at the returning officer’s office, several applicants said. There were eight on this day – Ashok Kumar, Dinesh Kumar Yadav, Neha Jaiswal, Ajit Kumar Jaiswal, Sandeep Tripathi, Amit Kumar, Nityanand Pandey and Vikram Kumar Verma.

Neha Jaiswal’s Facebook, where her name is Neha Kakkar, describes her as a member of the BJP Mahila Morcha in Varanasi. Ajit Kumar Jaiswal was the sector head of the party in Khajuri locality in Varanasi, according to a party poster he shared on the social media platform in September 2020.

Neha Jaiswal greets PM Narendra Modi in a picture shared on Facebook in December 2023.

Similarly, Amit Kumar’s Facebook profile says he is the coordinator of the BJP’s cultural department in North Varanasi assembly constituency. Vikram Kumar Verma describes himself as the BJP president of the Rohaniya mandal in the temple town in a 2021 post on the social media platform. Sandeep Tripathi told Scroll that he was associated with the BJP.

Harpreet Singh of the Akhil Bharatiya Parivar Party, who was inside the returning officer’s office to file his nomination that afternoon, said that the nomination process had been “hijacked by the BJP people”.

“There were candidates, like Dinesh Kumar Yadav and Ashok Kumar, who entered through the backdoor of the premises,” he said. “Neha Jaiswal and Ajit Kumar Jaiswal stood outside the door of the returning officer’s office and were letting others cut the queue and go inside.”

Dinesh Yadav was the BJP municipal councillor in Varanasi’s Sikraul locality in 2022, according to his Facebook. He told Scroll that he is still with the party and is contesting the election as an independent for “vikas” in Varanasi. Independent candidate Nityanand Pandey told Scroll that he and Ashok Kumar were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “I would have eventually withdrawn my nomination to support PM Modi,” said Pandey.

Inside the office that afternoon, Harpreet Singh grew impatient. “Four of their people had already cut their way in,” he said. “When [Dinesh Kumar] Yadav and [Ashok] Kumar tried, I intervened and asked them to join the queue.”

Besides Modi and his dummy, Rajalingam went through the affidavits of 27 candidates on the last day of nominations. The process went well beyond the Election Commission deadline of 3 pm. As a result, candidates alleged, the nominations were rushed and sloppy.

The most crucial omission was the compulsory oath that had to be administered to candidates. “The returning officer did not administer the oath to anyone,” said Ram Kumar Jaiswal, an independent candidate who had come from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. “It was deliberate and it was his mistake.”

The guidelines laid out in the Election Commission handbook for returning officers says that the oath must be made before the returning officer and assistant returning officer, who “have to give a certificate to the candidate that he has made and subscribed the oath before him on that day at a particular hour”,

It adds that the oath “cannot be so made and subscribed on the date of scrutiny”. In Varanasi, the date of scrutiny was May 15.

May 15: Rejection

On May 15, before scrutiny began at 11 am, Bind and Harpreet Singh arrived at Rajalingam’s office in the hope of clearing their paperwork.

During the scrutiny of nomination papers, a returning officer examines whether an applicant’s forms comply with provisions of the Representation of People Act, 1951, and the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.

Harpreet Singh was unable to meet the returning officer. Bind met Rajalingam at 2.30 pm and was turned away.

By evening, the Election Commission website declared that the nominations of 33 out of 41 candidates in Varanasi had been rejected. This included all candidates who could only apply on May 14 after Modi and his dummy candidate – except Dinesh Kumar Yadav, the former BJP municipal councillor, whose nomination was accepted.

The rejects included all independents linked with the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The list included Harpreet Singh, Sunil Bind, Hemant Yadav, and independent candidate Ram Kumar Jaiswal, among others.

The four of them were given written notices stating the grounds of their rejection, seen by Scroll. All of them had one reason in common: they were not administered the oath or they did not have the oath certificate.

Shyam Rangeela was given the same reason by the returning officer.

“If you collect affidavits at the last minute and then spot errors in them, when will the candidate get the time to correct them and file a fresh one?” asked Bind. “When I met the returning officer, I told him that what he did was wrong.”

Harpreet Singh wrote a caustic letter to the Election Commission in Delhi on May 16. “There is cheating in your system to reject our forms. Some anti-social elements were inside [the RO office] just so they could have others’ forms rejected,” he wrote. “Democracy was killed and the Constitution crushed before our eyes.”