Piyush Rai emerged from a polling station Saturday morning in Ghaziabad in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state along with his family, fervently hoping his vote for a new regional government will help bring development and jobs for young people.
“Even those among us who have post-graduate degrees have no jobs. The law and order situation is so alarming,” laments Rai who is convinced that only Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can improve the situation.
A short distance away at another polling booth, the sentiment is completely different among people who crowd around officers searching for their name in the voters list.
As he waits to cast his vote, Nadeem Malik slams the prime minister’s recent ban on high-value currency notes that created a massive cash crunch. “Our work, which was going well, came to a halt, common people like me took a hit,” he says, vowing to support the ruling Samajwadi Party.
Crucial mid-term verdict
These are among millions of voters in northern Uttar Pradesh state who will deliver a crucial mid-term verdict on Modi and decide whether he can wrest India’s biggest political prize from the ruling Samajwadi party.
Polls are being held in five states, but none is more crucial to the political fortunes of Modi as Uttar Pradesh. Home to 220 million people, the sprawling state is the country’s biggest and polling will be held in seven stages over the next four weeks. It is also among the country’s poorest regions, but the battleground state is widely seen as holding the political pulse of the country.
“This is a kind of test for Mr. Modi’s continuing popularity,” says Ajoy Bose, an independent political analyst in New Delhi.
Three years ago, the BJP won a stunning victory in the state during national elections, helping it get the biggest parliamentary mandate in three decades. At that time Modi had rallied voters with his promise of economic revival and cleaning up what is widely seen as corrupt governance.
But bringing about the radical change he promised and creating the tens of thousands of jobs that India’s young population needs has not been easy and many analysts say winning the regional polls will be an uphill battle.
The BJP had hoped to capitalize on Modi’s radical currency ban last year that aimed at striking at rich people with illegal cash and empowering the poor.
Many like Pinky Bharti, a beautician in Ghaziabad, admire the bold move and see him as a messiah who will root out corruption. “He did not distinguish between the rich and the poor, he brought everyone down to the same level,” she says.
But analysts warn that the high-risk gamble could have also cost him the support of tens of thousands of poor people in remote areas, who were worst affected by the currency shortages, as well as that of traders whose businesses, which depend heavily on cash transactions, slowed down.
“If he is unable to form a government there, it will be seen as an erosion of BJP support,” warns Bose.
The BJP’s main opponent is the regional Samajwadi party of incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav - a savvy young politician who last month struck what many consider could be a winning alliance with the Congress Party.
Another contender for power is Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party draws its support from the lower castes, but who has also made an outreach to Muslims hoping to broaden her base.
Pollsters have given varying predictions, some putting the Samajwadi Party ahead, while others say the BJP is in front. Most analysts feel the race is wide open and the contest could be close.
Whatever the outcome, Saturday’s poll was another colorful celebration of democracy in India. Across towns and villages, by 9 a.m. there were long lines at schools and colleges that had been converted into polling locations. Police and armed guards ensured smooth polling.
In this poor state where people tend to vote along traditional caste and religious lines, thousands of illiterate women emerged from their homes enthusiastically, but simply cast their ballots as they were instructed to do by the men in the family.
Twenty-five-year-old Suman, who arrived with her two young children simply says she will vote for “the flower,” meaning the lotus symbol of the BJP, and finds it difficult to elaborate beyond that. Poonam Puri is also looking forward to voting, and says she will stamp on “the hand,” referring to the symbol of the Congress Party.
Polling will end on March 8 and results will be tallied on March 11.
It will be a crucial count for Modi. “The fact is the rest of his term, Mr. Modi will be looking over this shoulder if he does badly in these elections,” says political analyst Bose. On the other hand, if he does well, then he will get breathing space and he will have time to recover.”