Prime Minister Narendra Modi called himself a “UP-wala” and said his government had set the poor on the path to progress as he virtually launched the BJP’s poll campaign for India’s most populous state on Thursday.
At a rally in western Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur to celebrate two years of the NDA administration, Modi announced an increase in the retirement age of government doctors by three years to 65, saying the move will bridge a shortage of medical professionals.
“I am a UP wala... I am your pradhan sewak,” he said as thousands chanted pro-Modi slogans.
He also appealed to doctors to serve poor pregnant women for free on the ninth day of every month, a significant move in a region with poor health indices.
For the better part of the hour-long speech, Modi focussed on social and pro-poor schemes to woo voters in a state with dismal literacy, health and infrastructure indices.
He promised power to all UP villages and repeated a pledge to double farm incomes by 2022, key promises in a state where over a third of the population lives under the poverty line.
“When I took oath two years ago, I said my government will work for the poor. Today, I have come to give an account of my work,” he said.
A win in Uttar Pradesh that sends the largest number of lawmakers to Parliament will cover the BJP in mid-term glory. But a defeat in the 200-million-strong state could prove to be costly for the BJP and galvanise the Opposition in Parliament.
“Governments are formed to fulfil dreams. When I was elected leader of house, in my first address, I said my govt will be govt for the poor, I have taken up those programmes which help poor fight poverty,” Modi said.
The BJP first came to power in the state on the back of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement in 1991 but has struggled to keep pace with regional rivals – Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party – in the last decade.
Buoyed by its impressive Lok Sabha show – it won 71 of the state’s seats – the BJP is eyeing power in UP but has a fight.
The western UP town of Saharanpur is dominated by Muslims, Jats and Dalits and sits in the middle of a sugarcane belt that is a Bahujan Samaj Party stronghold but might prove crucial in the assembly polls.
Three years ago, Hindus and Muslims clashed violently in the town, leaving a trail of destruction and polarising votes that was said to have helped the BJP.
The Prime Minister’s speech sounded as if it were a refrain from 2014, when he stirred hopes for the farmers and middle-class in his poll campaign.
“No parent wants his offspring to get poverty as inheritance.” He stressed on accountability, another major theme of his campaign two years ago.
“There should be accountability of every penny, every moment. In these two years, did you hear any news of corruption involving my government?” he asked.
Helped by lower oil prices and an increase in foreign investment, the government posted a decent economic growth last year.
However, what will count in popular perception are millions of jobs that need to be created, better infrastructure and rural prosperity, where half the country resides.
Thursday’s gathering ran into thousands, mostly cane-growers who were responsible for the BJP’s strong showing in the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
The town was awash in saffron flags, festoons and airbrushed photos of small-time BJP leaders next to Modi’s on large printed hoardings.
Busloads of people from nearby districts poured into the town dotted with Muslim seminaries and mosques.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh spoke before Modi and invoked Ram to plead to voters.
“Even Ram’s exile was over after 14 years. I am sure you will end the BJP’s exile from government in this state this time,” Singh said. Four of this sugarcane-growing region’s seven legislators belong to the Bahujan Samaj Party.
Asked which way the political winds were blowing, 60-year-old Ram Autar Singh, a cane grower, said, “Modi will ensure all our dues are cleared. For that we need to bring BJP to power.”
Yet, analysts say, in UP’s caste-ridden politics, the path to power isn’t easy for any one party.