Modi faces major test in Uttar Pradesh polls

Voters waiting to cast their ballots in Dadri constituency in Uttar Pradesh yesterday. The state sends 80 MPs to the Lower House of Parliament.
Voters waiting to cast their ballots in Dadri constituency in Uttar Pradesh yesterday. The state sends 80 MPs to the Lower House of Parliament.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Voting for state assembly seats crucial for Indian leader after demonetisation exercise

Millions of Indians cast their votes yesterday, at the start of what is one of the nation's most important elections and a barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity in the wake of his decision to demonetise high-value banknotes.

Yesterday was the first phase of a multi-stage election in Uttar Pradesh, India's poorest and most populous state with 204 million people. Mr Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have campaigned hard to win the state, which is important politically because it sends 80 MPs to the Lower House of Parliament, the largest number of any state.

The elections will be held in stages this month and next. Voters queued outside polling booths under tight security in 73 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh, which just 21/2 years ago voted overwhelmingly in support of Mr Modi during the country's parliamentary election.

Turnout was more than 50 per cent as of late afternoon.

Victory would be a major boost for Mr Modi, after the deeply controversial and sudden withdrawal of 1,000 and 500 rupee banknotes from circulation led to a major shortage of cash and severe disruption to businesses, with the rural poor hard hit.

  • MAIN PLAYERS IN UTTAR PRADESH POLLS

  • AKHILESH YADAV, 43

    Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is the son of Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of the Samajwadi Party. He was chosen as his father's successor in the last assembly elections in 2012 but has had to face interference in the running of the government from his father, a wrestler-turned-politician, and uncle Shivpal.

    During these elections, he managed to wrest control of the party from his father and uncle, and has positioned himself as a pro-development politician who can now run the government without family interference.



    RAHUL GANDHI, 46

    He is the Congress party's face in this battle. The Congress vice-president comes from an illustrious political family with his father Rajiv, grandmother Indira and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru all former prime ministers. His mother Sonia is Congress president but she is said to be in poor health and has not been seen in these elections.

    The tie-up with the Samajwadi Party has made the Congress stronger, and the joint campaigning with Mr Yadav has caught the attention of voters.



    MAYAWATI, 61

    Ms Mayawati is the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and is the champion of the Dalits formerly known as the untouchables.

    Known as the Dalit queen, she stands for Dalit empowerment and has come to power in the past due to support from Dalits and Muslims.

    She is a four-term chief minister. In 2012, her party was defeated by the Samajwadi Party.

    Her governance has also been marred by graft accusations. In the past, she has been hurt by graft accusations and has a disproportionate assets case pending in the Supreme Court.



    NARENDRA MODI, 66

    The Indian Prime Minister remains the country's most popular leader with his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party deciding not to field a chief minister candidate in these elections but instead banking on Mr Modi's popularity.

    He has campaigned tirelessly and aggressively, taking on his political opponents in multiple rallies.

    His campaign has centred on wooing the poor and highlighting his focus on development.

    He has also highlighted his efforts to curb corruption through the recent decision to demonetise high-value currency notes.

The first phase of voting, where 25.9 million people are eligible to vote, is particularly important for the BJP, which has its best chance of picking up the maximum number of seats from these constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, which has 404 assembly constituencies in total.

A win in the elections would also help to boost the BJP's numbers in the Upper House. The BJP has a majority of seats in the Lower House but a minority in the Upper House.

"The BJP has gone into the campaign without local leaders, and is depending on the charisma of the national leadership. In that sense, one factor in the elections will be the persona of the prime minister, and the demonetisation exercise that he has staked a lot on," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University.

The BJP is facing a tough electoral battle against an alliance of the Indian National Congress and the Samajwadi Party, and also against the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by the popular Ms Mayawati, a champion of the lower-caste Dalits.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has attracted attention by holding joint rallies with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

Some commentators said the first phase will set the tone for the rest of the elections, and the key would be whether the Muslim vote consolidates behind the Congress alliance, or gets divided across parties.

Muslims make up about 30 per cent of voters in the first phase. Across Uttar Pradesh, 20 per cent of the state's population is Muslim.

"These constituencies are important for the BJP. They can't expect similar support in eastern or central Uttar Pradesh. Muslims are going to play a major role," said Dr Aftab Alam, an associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.

He added that the BSP has also been wooing Muslim voters.

Meanwhile, the BJP has courted controversy in the state. In its manifesto, it promised to shut down slaughterhouses and launch inquiries into alleged reports of Hindu families migrating from Muslim-dominated areas in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP also promised to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya at a disputed site, and to protect the cow, an animal that Hindus hold as sacred.

These promises have raised complaints from critics, who say that the BJP is falling back on Hindutva, an ideology that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life.

The various party leaders have also promised development, with Mr Yadav, who had promised bicycles and laptops in earlier elections, this time offering young people free smartphones.

A BAROMETER OF POPULARITY

The BJP has gone into the campaign without local leaders, and is depending on the charisma of the national leadership. In that sense, one factor in the elections will be the persona of the prime minister, and the demonetisation exercise that he has staked a lot on.

DR SANDEEP SHASTRI, a political scientist and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University.

India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley earlier this month unveiled a Budget which boosts government spending to help the poor while cutting tax rates, in an attempt to woo voters in Uttar Pradesh and other states - by blunting the negative impact of the demonetisation saga.

The state elections are also expected to set up the alliances for India's next parliamentary election in 2019.

"This is the beginning of a secular platform. This is the semi-final. The process of unification will be stronger towards 2019... This is the start," said Congress spokesman Tom Vadakkan of the tie-up with the Samajwadi Party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Modi faces major test in Uttar Pradesh polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe