Accessibility links

Breaking News

India's Biggest State Casts Votes in Key Battle for Modi’s BJP


People line up to cast votes in Nodia, a town in Uttar Pradesh that adjoins the Indian capital, Feb. 10, 2022.

As India’s most populous state began casting votes Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced optimism that his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party will win in Uttar Pradesh and in four other states that choose new governments in coming weeks, but political analysts say the elections will be an uphill battle for the BJP.

The polls in Uttar Pradesh are seen as a barometer of the party’s popularity and on its Hindu-first politics that have taken center stage during its second term in power in India.

But political analysts say that, while the BJP has wide appeal in its Hindu base, among the plethora of issues that will influence voters are anger among farmers, rising prices and growing unemployment.

The battleground state that is India’s biggest political prize is ruled by Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath, widely seen as a polarizing politician, whose controversial policies have included punitive laws on interfaith marriages.

“They [the people of Uttar Pradesh] will accept us in 2022 after seeing our work," Modi told news agency ANI in an interview on the eve of the polls. "I have seen in all states that there is the inclination towards the BJP and we will win the elections with a full majority.”

Voters check their name in electoral list as polls open in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically significant state, Feb. 10. 2022.
Voters check their name in electoral list as polls open in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically significant state, Feb. 10. 2022.

Political analysts called it an effort to bolster the party’s enthusiasm.

“It will be a very tough battle and I don’t think the victory of any party can be taken for granted,” said Sandeep Shastri, vice chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University in Bhopal. “The race is going to be very competitive.”

During election rallies, the BJP, which had campaigned on a plank of economic development five years ago, has showcased airports and highways that it is building to boost infrastructure and create jobs.

But as they stepped into polling booths to cast their votes, many people in one of India’s least-developed states said that they have not seen the radical change the party had promised. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of millions, economists say.

Urmila Jaswant Singh says rising prices have hurt people like her with meager incomes, Feb. 10, 2022.
Urmila Jaswant Singh says rising prices have hurt people like her with meager incomes, Feb. 10, 2022.

“Nothing has been done for poor people like us. I have a meager income and prices of everything have gone up,” said Urmila Jaswant Singh, who runs a small shop in Noida, a town in Uttar Pradesh on the outskirts of the Indian capital, “How do we manage?”

A massive temple being built to honor Hindu god Rama at Ayodhya town in the state is winning traction with voters who tend to vote along traditional caste and religious lines. Many Hindus had wanted the temple built on the site where a mosque had previously stood.

“I am very happy that a temple is coming up in Ayodhya. They have settled the dispute that had lingered for so many decades,” said Kesh Ram Awana, a landowner, who said he is a staunch BJP supporter and turned up early to cast his vote.

Kesh Ram Awana, a BJP supporter, says he is happy that a temple is being constructed to honor Hindu god Rama in Ayodhya town in the state, Feb. 10, 2022.
Kesh Ram Awana, a BJP supporter, says he is happy that a temple is being constructed to honor Hindu god Rama in Ayodhya town in the state, Feb. 10, 2022.

Adityanath, the state’s chief minister, has said that law and order and issues of corruption have taken precedence over religion.

At polling booths, though, there were voices of unease with the increasing focus on religious issues.

“The focus should be on development, jobs, and above all peace and harmony,” businessman Yasir Arfat said.

Yasir Arfat, a businessman wants the focus to be on issues like development and peace and harmony, Feb. 10, 2022.
Yasir Arfat, a businessman wants the focus to be on issues like development and peace and harmony, Feb. 10, 2022.

“The BJP has always been invoking the communal angle, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable, whether you belong to the majority or minority community,” he said.

Thursday’s voting was held in the state’s western part, where the BJP faces an erosion of support among farmers who took part in a massive protest last year to demand the repeal of three farm laws. Many villagers here that had supported the BJP five years ago say they will vote for an alliance led by the regional Samajwadi Party that is the Hindu nationalist party’s main rival.

Six more rounds of voting will be held in coming weeks and results will be announced March 10.

According to opinion polls, the BJP, which won by a landslide five years ago, is likely to retain power in the state, although with a smaller margin. That would still dent its image, Shastri said.

“Any reduction in the number of seats they had compared to last time will also be seen as a defeat. I think the party is hoping to not only retain its seats but increase its share in preparation for more state elections and general elections in 2024,” he said.

Voters will also start casting ballots in coming days in four other, smaller states – Manipur, Goa, Uttarakhand and Punjab. The BJP governs all of them except Punjab. However, while showing a good performance in these states will be important for the party, they are unlikely to shape the political narrative in the same way as Uttar Pradesh will.

For the opposition Congress Party, which has been marginalized politically since Modi catapulted to the national stage in 2014, the polls do not hold hope of a revival. It only governs one of the five states going to the polls, Punjab, but here too it has been bruised by divisions in its ranks. A further setback in the elections for the party could bring more questions over the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, who analysts say has been unable to provide a credible alternative to Modi.

Recommended

XS
SM
MD
LG