India’s most populous state will hold an election in February that pitches the scion of the nation’s most famous dynasty against a low-caste incumbent with humble roots, in a test of the nation’s mood before general elections in 2014.
The election commission said voting in Uttar Pradesh will be in seven phases starting February 4 and finishing February 28. Four other states, including Punjab, will hold elections between January 28 and March 3.
If it were a country, Uttar Pradesh would be the world’s fifth most populous with more than 200 million people calling it home. It is also one of the India’s poorest and in 2007 elected a chief minister from a Dalit, or untouchable, caste.
The election will inevitably be seen as a barometer of support for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party. His government has floundered in its second term as economic woes and corruption allegations take the shine off India’s growth story.
A weak showing in Uttar Pradesh and other states including Punjab and tourist and mining hotspot Goa would further diminish his authority and could increase calls within the party for a change of leadership before national elections in 2014.
The election results will start kicking in on March 4.
Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Mayawati is now one of India’s most astute and recognizable politicians, known as much for her penchant for designer handbags and erecting statues of herself as for breaking caste barriers and building highways.
In a sign of the importance of Uttar Pradesh, campaigning started weeks ago with the Congress party sending in Rahul Gandhi, the latest son of a dynasty that has ruled India for most of the last 60 years.
The two of them have dominated the campaign, with the indomitable chief minister dubbing her rival a son of privilege with foreign interests. Gandhi has lashed Mayawati over alleged misuse of central government welfare funds for personal gain.
Both are drawing large crowds at rallies, but the real winner in the state may be another dynasty, that of three-times chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose son is heading his Samajwadi Party’s campaign.
Two recent opinion polls have shown the Samajwadi Party will win the largest number of seats in the state assembly, although probably not a majority. Analysts say a tie-up with the Congress party could then be on the cards.
The Congress party is closely associated with Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and India’s favourite son, Mahatma Gandhi, who is no relation of the current crop.
Nehru’s early constituency was in Uttar Pradesh, as was his daughter Indira Gandhi’s, also a prime minister who was later assassinated by her body-guards. Her son Rajiv, another prime minister before being assassinated, had his constituency in the state too.
Despite the family’s long connection with Uttar Pradesh, the party has not governed the state in more than 20 years.
At the last state election it garnered just 22 of 403 available seats. As such, the party would probably feel that a coalition tie up with the Samajwadi Party and a clutch of 60 or so seats could be called victory.