Lucknow: Elections in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) are often billed as all about caste politics, but this time they are also an important barometer of the fortunes of the country’s two main political parties.
About 114 million voters, more than Russia and Australia combined, are eligible to cast their ballots in a seven-phase election that kicks off on 7 April and ends a month later.
Two state-wide parties supported by lower castes are running neck-and-neck in opinion polls, but neither is expected to win an outright majority.
With national elections two years away, pundits will also scrutinise the performance of the main national opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), likely to emerge as the third largest party in the state and a potential coalition partner.
A strong showing by the BJP would mark its national revival after a shock electoral defeat in the 2004 general election and its subsequent loss in political direction.
Earlier this year, the BJP and its allies got a much-needed shot in the arm by winning control of state governments in Uttarakhand and Punjab.
“The BJP is already on a revival path having won Punjab and Uttarakhand. If they win U.P. too, it will be a big boost for them.”
Country’s ruling Congress party has long struggled in U.P. and is trailing a distant fourth place in polls. But after a disappointing spell as a junior coalition partner in the state, it could find itself completely excluded from power.
That would be a symbolic blow for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress-led national government, already under national pressure from rising inflation and controversy about reforms meant to boost foreign investment and industrialization.
The party will also be disappointed if some high-profile campaigning by Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and a member of India’s most powerful political dynasty, fails to revive its fortunes in U.P.
Price rise tops agenda
Pollsters say that while parties have built support based on caste and religious community, development, crime and the economy are more important to voters. Increasingly, people complain about rising inflation.
“We have never seen such high prices,” said Babu Lal, a fruit-seller in Jhansi, a dusty town about seven hours’ drive from the state capital, Lucknow.
The predominantly agrarian state has been trying to industrialize but poor power supplies and roads, as well as rising crime, have kept many investors away, leaving it struggling to keep pace with India’s boom.
Of more than 800 candidates up for election on 7 April, 131 have criminal cases pending against them, according to the U.P. Election Watch, a private watchdog group.
“It is very difficult to separate crime from politics in U.P.,” said Ishwar Chandra Dwivedi, a retired police officer who runs U.P. Election Watch.
Polls show the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have won voters by politicising lower castes against a historical hegemony of upper castes.