India holds regional elections in test of PM Modi’s popularity

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Feb 10 (EFE).- Millions of voters in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh queued up at voting centers Thursday to choose a new regional government in the first phase of staggered polls seen as a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity ahead of the 2024 general elections.

The election in the northern state of 200 million people is a test lab for Hindu nationalism of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accused of discriminating against minorities, especially Muslims.

Other states to elect new governments in the seven-phase Feb-10 -Mar.7 elections are Punjab and Uttarakhand in the north, Goa in the west, and Manipur in the northeast.

But the Uttar Pradesh polls stand out for more reasons than one, including the sheer staggering number of 150 million eligible voters.

The state sends 80 lawmakers to the lower house of the Indian parliament and houses the Lok Sabha constituency of Modi.

“It is also a very, very high stake election for that reason,” analyst and Modi’s biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told EFE.

The polls held amid the economic crisis fueled by the pandemic are the first after farmers held a year-long demonstration to force the government to withdraw three controversial farm laws that sought to liberalize the sector.

“It is going to be a kind of test for Modi. Whether his overarching Hindu narrative is still holding or whether this government will start being faulted now onward for failures on health and economic factors,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s most trusted lieutenant, recognized the significance of the regional polls.

“Voters should understand that this 2022 UP assembly election is not merely an election to elect MLAs, ministers, or chief ministers. It would decide the fate of the nation in the coming years,” Shah said at an election rally two weeks ago.

Shah and Modi canvassed hectically to get the BJP’s controversial Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, re-elected as the state chief minister.

The pandemic restricted election campaigning and barred mass public rallies.

Adiyanath seeks to repeat the 2017 stunning victory when the BJP won 312 of the 403 assembly seats.

His closest rival is Akhilesh Yadav, a former chief minister and head of the Samajwadi Party (SP).

“The election looks like a bipolar contest between the BJP and the SP. But the appearances actually I think are deceiving,” academic Gilles Verniers, professor of political science at the Indian Ashoka University, told EFE.

Not many are betting on Mayawati, and her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Mayawati, a four-time former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, is the leader of the “Dalits,” formerly called “untouchables,” the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy.

“The BSP is presented as a declining force, but the BSP throughout its history has been consistently underestimated,” Verniers said, noting that its electorate is among the most loyal in India.

The historic Indian National Congress of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is in the fray too.

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