Eastern Uttar Pradesh has an uncanny knack to charm top politicians.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to contest from another seat outside Gujarat in 2014, he chose Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency.
Modi was invoking the parable that the Holy Ganges was summoning him to do his duty to the country.
More recently, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decided to take a plunge into active politics, the party chose to designate her as the general secretary in-charge of eastern UP.
The political focus now shifts to this region, Purvanchal, where polling will be held in the last three phases – May 6, May 12 and May 19 – of the seven-phased Indian general elections.
Political heavyweights in the fray from this region are Narendra Modi (Varanasi), Congress president Rahul Gandhi (Amethi), Congress leader Sonia Gandhi (Rae Bareli) and Samajwadi party president Akhilesh Yadav (Azamgarh).
Significance of Purvanchal
Due to its religious and cultural significance, pilgrimages and festivals have a strong influence in the region.
Major pilgrim centres of Varanasi, Prayagraj (former Allahabad), Vindhyachal, Ayodhya, Gorakhpur and Devipatan are located in this region.
The Ram Temple movement of late 1980s originated from Ayodhya. And within years, communal polarisation enveloped the entire state, although the fault lines run deeper in some western UP districts.
Geographically, Purvanchal ('purva' means 'east') is meant to indicate the region east of Lucknow up to the border with Bihar. It comprises the revenue divisions of Ayodhya (erstwhile Faizabad), Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Devipatan, Basti, Azamgarh and Mirzapur.
The region, where caste divide runs very deep, has 24 districts and 29 Lok Sabha seats. Brahmins, Thakurs (Kshatriya) and OBCs hold sway in their pocket boroughs.
Priyanka had been given the responsibility of these constituencies besides seats in Bundelkhand and Awadh regions of the vast state.
Of these, the BJP had won all except three -– Amethi, Rae Bareli and Azamgarh -– in 2014, though it later lost by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
The BJP is quite aware that this region holds the key in the next phases of polling in the state which has the maximum number of Lok Sabha seats, 80.
It s been putting in a lot of effort into its campaigning. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also the chief seer of the influential Gorakhnath Math, has toured the region several times, raising the polarising pitch every time to seek votes.
Priyanka and Rahul have also toured the area.
Priyanka’s first leg of campaigning was in the Varanasi-Prayagraj-Mirzapur circuit, where she visited prominent temples and participated in temple rituals.
The region has traditionally been open to political experiments with the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party having emerged winners from many seats in previous elections.
The electorate of eastern UP are also known for their rebellious nature and shifting political loyalties.
In 2009, out of its tally of 10 in the state, the BJP had won only four seats in this region – Gorakhpur, Bansgaon, Azamgarh and Varanasi, while the remaining 25 had gone to SP, BSP and Congress in almost equal numbers.
The significant others
As far as the opposition alliance is concerned, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) does not have a significant presence in this region.
But the ruling BJP is likely to face a challenge from its erstwhile ally, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP). Its leader Om Prakash Rajbhar had been an uncertain ally of the BJP. Despite being a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government, he had been one of the most vocal critics of the BJP and the Yogi government. The BJP has been indulging him and has not yet removed him from either the government or the alliance.
But Rajbhar has announced that his party will contest all seats in the eastern region.
In recent statements, Rajbhar has asserted that he and his party will do everything possible to defeat the BJP in eastern UP.
The Rajbhar community claims social and political influence in Varanasi, Chandauli, Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur and Ballia districts.
Another BJP ally, the Apna Dal, has split after prolonged acrimony among its leadership. The party leaders' Krishna Patel and Anupriya Patel, the mother daughter duo, had different ideas about backing the BJP.
The Krishna Patel faction has sided with Shivpal Yadav's Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia) (PSPL), while daughter Anupriya continues to be with the NDA. She is also a union minister.
The erstwhile united Apna Dal had its influence limited to the eastern districts of Varanasi, Pratapgarh, Mirzapur, and Robertsganj.
Other small parties which have pockets of influence are the Peace Party led by Dr Mohammad Ayub and Jansatta Dal (Loktantrik) led by Raghuraj Pratap Singh (Raja Bhaiya) of Pratapgarh.
While Peace Party has aligned with PSPL, the JD (L) has kept its options open till its electoral credibility is proven after the results.
So smaller players will wield considerable sway this time in this den of political stars.