Lucknow, March 5: As the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election moves into its seventh and last leg on March 8, the heavy campaigning unleashed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi and surrounding areas on three days has caused a huge speculation over the need for this push at this juncture.
Modi has been relentlessly touring the state, having planned his itinerary in sync with the phases of polling. Thus, he has turned out to address public meetings in places close to constituencies where campaigning ends prior to the polling. Even if technically he does not campaign in the constituency where polling is due within 48 hours, the message is delivered only a few kilometres away.
But in Varanasi, it is nothing short of a blitzkrieg. After a big show on March 4, where Modi's speech ended a little after 8.30 pm, another big campaign event is planned on March 6 when campaigning ends for the final phase. On the intervening day (March 5), his rallies are planned in Jaunpur and Mirzapur, and their dates have been advanced from their original schedule.
It is obvious that Modi is taking the last phase very seriously because of Varanasi, from where he won the 2014 Lok Sabha election by a huge margin. However, despite his assertions and several visits to the holy city since then, the people of the city by and large are yet to get the feel of living in a Prime Minister's constituency. Visitors to Varanasi may find some changes especially in garbage removal and traffic management, but changes in the bigger picture are yet to emerge. Even Modi said in his speech on March 4 that the impact of many mega-projects will unfold in years to come.
Varanasi has become the focal point of campaign barbs by both the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj party. And not surprisingly, whatever Modi says first is taken up by rival party leaders to be made fun of or countered. Whether it was his prayers at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, his exhortations to the Ganga river, electricity supply in the city or other promises, Modi's comments were immediately taken up by rival leaders to be contested. According to BJP leaders, this indicated that the other parties had nothing to say on their own therefore they waited for Modi to come up with something. "It is especially true for Rahul who comes up with one gaffe after another whenever he tries to be original," said a party leader.
By spending a generous amount of time in Varanasi in this election, Modi has tried to convince his supporters that he is sincere about his commitments. The idea, according to BJP insiders, is to establish that it is Modi who will lead even in campaign content whereas others will simply follow. For people of Varanasi it is important for Modi to present himself as one of their own, rather than one from another far-off state.
Modi started his campaign from February 4 in Meerut, and till March 6, the number of rallies would reach 15. The fact that no less than 11 Union ministers were present in Varanasi on March 4, while two were in adjoining Ghazipur and Mirzapur. These ministers - Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu, Power Minister Piyush Goyal, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Textile Minister Smriti Irani, Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Industries Kalraj Mishra, Health Minister J P Nadda, Minister of State for Finance Santosh Gangwar and junior ministers Manoj Sinha, Anupriya Patel and Mahendra Pandey were in and out of Varanasi. This was in addition to party president Amit Shah, UP paty chief Keshav Maurya, Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath, and chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and others.
In contrast, the mantle for SP-Congress alliance rests only on Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Dimple Yadav. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Sonia Gandhi have decided to stay away from campaigning after the former's solo appearance in Rae Bareli a few weeks ago. On March 5, Akhilesh and Rahul, besides Mayawati, were, also in Varanasi, but their focus was only on countering what Modi had said, rather than coming up with their own set of election promises.
The BJP's decision to shift the campaign headquarters to Varanasi is a part of the party strategy to assert the importance of Varanasi and the entire region. Most of party's spokesmen too are camping in Varanasi for the last two weeks. The objective, according to BJP leaders, is to win most seats not only in Varanasi but also in the adjoining districts of Jaunpur, Ghazipur, Mughalsarai, Bhadohi, Mirzapur, Robertsganj and Obra. There are 40 constituencies in seven districts that will see polling on March 8. And then the nail-biting wait for March 11 will begin.