On Tuesday, 5 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the 'Stand-Up India' programme in Noida. At a function organised to mark the occasion, Modi distributed keys to 5,100 e-rickshaws and reiterated his resolve to work for the poor, Dalits and the deprived segments of society.
However, the significance of Modi's Noida visit goes far beyond the semantics of the government press release. He has his eyes firmly fixed on the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
The outcome of these elections is likely to be even more decisive for Modi than for his party. And he has sounded the bugle for this electoral battle even while the state BJP unit is struggling to sort out its internal differences.
Modi's speech was proof that his strategy is focussed on the powerful Dalit vote bank in the state. The state working committee meeting held recently also gave ample signals that Dalits are on top of the party's poll agenda.
The Prime Minister was accompanied by a host of dignitaries on the dais. Apart from about two dozen MPs belonging to the state - most of them Dalits - several ministers belonging to the Dalit community also attended the programme.
A large portrait of the Dalit icon Babu Jagjivan Ram adorned the stage. The Prime Minister had meticulously chosen Jagjivan Ram's birth anniversary for launching the Stand-Up India scheme. He paid floral tribute to the late Congress leader upon reaching the stage.
Even his speech began by the mentioning Jagjivan Ram's legacy. "I don't remember any government ever launching any scheme on the occasion of Babu Jagjivan Ram's birth anniversary. We commemorate such great personalities going beyond parties and ideologies. It is unfortunate that history tends to forget such heroes," he said.
The Prime Minister focussed his entire 30-minute speech on Dalits while targeting both the Congress and the BSP. He understands that the BJP faces its greatest challenge from Mayawati and her party in the elections, and it cannot hope to form the next government in UP without breaking into the BSP's traditional vote bank.
The Modi wave from the 2014 elections is ebbing. There seems no likelihood of en masse pro-Modi voting in the state elections. This makes the task of making inroads into the vote banks of other parties all the more necessary.
Modi is trying to portray himself as the saviour of the Dalits before the electorate of UP. At a time when there is no consensus within his party about its leadership for the state, he has emphasised the importance of these elections while signalling that he could be the face of the party in these polls too.
"We have seen the 'poverty' of the rich classes of this country. One of them has run away with the money of the banks. Look at how rich the hearts of the poor people are. They opened accounts under the Jan-Dhan scheme by depositing money, even though it is a zero-balance account," said Modi, without making a direct reference to Vijay Mallya or the recent Panama Papers scandal.
He also stated that the people getting e-rickshaws should focus on the education of their kids, especially girl children. The rest of the speech was a repetition of the promises and claims he has made since his Independence Day address in 2014.
There are other items as well on Modi's poll agenda for UP. He has called a high-level meeting on 9 April to discuss the drought situation in Bundelkhand. There would be little surprise if UP finds a place in most of his agenda and decisions in the near future.
A large number of chairs were arranged for the audience, but, to the BJP's dismay, not all of them were filled. Spectators started leaving the venue even while Modi was showing the green flag to the e-rickshaws. But even these small observations speak volumes about BJP's current popularity in the state.
The slogan 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai' at the beginning and end of Modi's speech also caught the attention of the observers. Clearly, Modi is seeking to capitalise on Hindutva and nationalism in UP elections.
Linking nationalism with the Dalit agenda lies at the core of BJP's strategy for the polls. The party hopes this will not only enable the division of Dalit and Muslim vote, but also woo the Dalits.
It remains to be seen whether this strategy succeeds or not.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma