Modi kicks off election campaign in key Indian state

Supporters at a Bahujan Samaj Party campaign rally listening to party chief Mayawati in Lucknow on Oct 9. The latter, who served four terms as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, will be a strong rival.
Supporters at a Bahujan Samaj Party campaign rally listening to party chief Mayawati in Lucknow on Oct 9. The latter, who served four terms as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, will be a strong rival.PHOTO: REUTERS

Indian PM reaches out to Muslim women, the young in Uttar Pradesh

In a major test of his popularity, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the first of a series of rallies yesterday as part of the election campaign in India's most populous state hoping to boost the ruling party's strength in the upper house of Parliament.

Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, holds elections early next year and Mr Modi is planning eight rallies till Dec 25 as part of the campaign to recapture the state for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Uttar Pradesh has a population of over 200 million people, or about three times the population of Britain. A win would boost the BJP's strength in the upper house, where the party has a minority. The state has remained out of the BJP's grasp for nearly 15 years.

The poll will also be a test of Mr Modi's policies, including his decision to launch surgical strikes on Pakistan early this month in retaliation for what the government has called cross-border terrorism.

"The election is critical because it will also be a test of the Modi government which is touching the halfway mark," said Dr Bhaskara Rao, director of the Centre for Media Studies.

Yesterday the prime minister reached out to young voters and Muslim women as part of a campaign to boost the party's vote-bank.

He told the crowd in southern Uttar Pradesh that only the BJP could fight for them. "I will work like a labourer for you," Mr Modi said, asking the young to choose the BJP if they wanted development and accused his rivals of corruption and greed.

The state is ruled by Samajwadi Party, a regional outfit. Mr Modi also faces another powerful regional leader, Ms Mayawati, the champion of Dalits, India's most oppressed caste.

Ms Mayawati, president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), served four terms as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Modi expressed support for Muslim women against the practice of "triple talaq" where a man can divorce a woman by just verbally saying "talaq", a formal repudiation of the marriage, three times.

"Is it fair for a man to say 'talaq' thrice over the phone and a Muslim woman's life to be ruined? This issue shouldn't be politicised," he said.

The Indian government is exploring a move towards a uniform civil code and has voiced opposition to the "triple talaq". But the move has angered Muslim groups, triggering a debate on whether such a code would encroach on religious freedom.

The BJP has also tried to reach out to Dalits, but that effort received a major setback after four Dalit men were chained to the back of a vehicle and beaten with rods by vigilantes who accused them of skinning a dead cow. Protection of cows, sacred to Hindus, is part of the BJP core agend.

A spell of infighting within the Samajwadi Party which could be heading for a split, is also expected to be an advantage for Ms Mayawati, who has been trying to consolidate her support among Muslims.

She has also attacked the BJP's Hindu-nationalist agenda that has caused concern among Muslims and other groups, who are worried about rising intolerance.

"A split in the Samajwadi party would benefit Ms Mayawati as the Muslim vote might migrate to her," said Mr Sudhir Panwar, a Lucknow-based political analyst and member of the Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission.

"This is a personality-based election where communal and caste issues will dominate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'Modi kicks off election campaign in key Indian state'. Print Edition | Subscribe