Prime Minister Narendra Modi starts his two-day eastern Uttar Pradesh visit today, his second to this part of the state in a just over a fortnight – this time he will visit Varanasi, Azamgarh and Mirzapur.
But it is the choice of Azamgarh as the venue of his first public meeting on this trip, that has drawn the maximum headlines in the last few days. Azamgarh, has been a dark spot for the BJP – a party that swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in UP but lost the Azamgarh seat to former Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. In the 2017 assembly polls, the BJP routed Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP almost everywhere else in the state, but in Azamgarh’s 10 assembly seats, it managed to win just one – conceding the rest to now allies Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati.
And that is why, BJP sources say, the party wants to focus extensively on winning Azamgarh in Lok Sabha 2019 – it is a prestige battle for us, party sources say. One way to do this, is a big push for infrastructure. A press release issued by the government says that in Azamgarh today, the Prime Minister will lay the Foundation Stone of the 340 km long Poorvanchal Expressway. This road will connect several important and historical towns of eastern Uttar Pradesh, including Barabanki, Amethi, Sultanpur, Faizabad, Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh, Mau and Ghazipur – with the state capital – Lucknow.
But this has already run into controversy, with the Samajwadi Party saying the expressway was former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s brainchild and the foundation for it was laid way back in 2016 by him. The party has also released pictures of that function to the media. But Yogi Adityanath’s government has hit back, saying that while Akhilesh Yadav did lay the foundation stone in 2016, the then SP government had not even acquired half the land required for the project. The project was actually revived when Yogi Adityanath took charge as UP chief minister in 2017, the BJP says.
Beyond ‘Vikas‘, or development, the BJP is staring at a formidable caste combination in Azamgarh – with a 70 per cent combined population of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims – a bloc of voters Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav hope to cement in their favour with their alliance in Uttar Pradesh, and take their wins much beyond Azamgarh in the Lok Sabha polls of 2019.
PM Modi will also visit Mirzapur on Sunday – where among other infrastructure projects, he will dedicate the Bansagar Canal Project to the nation. This project will provide a big boost to irrigation in the region, according to the government and will be greatly beneficial for the farmers of Mirzapur and Allahabad districts of Uttar Pradesh. Mirzapur is the stronghold of the party’s eastern UP ally, the Apna Dal, that holds two Lok Sabha seats and has considerable influence over OBC votes in pockets of eastern UP. Another prominent ally of the BJP in eastern UP – the SBSP led by Om Prakash Rajbhar, who is cabinet minister in the UP government, has in the last few months repeatedly criticised the BJP and Yogi Adityanath’s leadership style in UP. The challenge for the BJP will be to keep both its allies in good humour in the lead up to Lok Sabha polls.
In Varanasi, the Prime Minister will dedicate, or lay the foundation stone of important projects, cumulatively worth over Rs 900 crore. Among the projects to be dedicated are the Varanasi City Gas Distribution Project, and the Varanasi-Ballia EMU train. The foundation stone will be laid for the Panchkoshi Parikrama Marg, and several projects under the Smart City Mission and Namaami Gange. The Prime Minister will also lay the Foundation Stone for an International Convention Centre in Varanasi.