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Elections in India's Uttar Pradesh present test for Modi

Aditya Sharma New Delhi
February 9, 2022

The outcome of an election kicking off this week in Uttar Pradesh could prove to be a bellwether for the 2024 general election and the fortunes of Premier Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP.

Narendra Modi gestures on a stage
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a BJP campaign event in 2021Image: Sonali Pal Chaudhury/NurPhoto/picture alliance

There is a common adage in Indian politics: The road to power in Delhi goes through Uttar Pradesh. The northern state is a much-vaunted prize in Indian elections, not only by national political parties but also by those that harbor national ambitions.

Nine of India's 14 prime ministers have had a constituency in the state. Among them is the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents the "temple town" of Varanasi in parliament.

Elections in this state, with more than 150 million eligible voters, are a gargantuan task. Polling for its 403-seat legislative assembly will be held in seven phases. 

The Uttar Pradesh polls, open February 10 until March 10, will be the largest democratic exercise in the world this year.

What makes Uttar Pradesh so important?

Uttar Pradesh's political influence in India has more to do with just the huge numbers it represents. It sends 80 parliamentarians to the "Lok Sabha," India's lower house of parliament — by far the largest contingent of parliamentarians from a single state.

However, analysts argue that there are several other factors that determine the state's central role in Indian politics.

"Uttar Pradesh is a state that is seen as a barometer for national politics," said Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University in Haryana state just north of New Delhi.

"Most of the fault lines that exist in Indian politics, exist in UP [Uttar Pradesh] in more exacerbated forms, whether it's caste-based politics, religious mobilization, political violence, or communalism," he told DW. 

Politics in the state, he noted, have always been equated with national politics. 

"This is not a state that has a strong regional identity of its own. It is a state that has always seen its regional politics as being an enactment of national politics," Verniers said.

What is at stake for Modi and his party?

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of the main contenders in the month-long election, facing off against regional rival the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party).

The Indian National Congress, India's main opposition party at the national level, is also running — but opinion polls suggest its chances of winning more than a few seats remain grim.

Political analysts have said the election will likely be a bipolar contest. Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at New Delhi's Observer Research Foundation, told DW there is a "good chance that BJP might lose this election."

While the BJP has lost several state elections in recent years, a defeat in Uttar Pradesh would deal a huge blow to the party, which currently is the strongest political force in India.

Sahoo believes the reason for this is that Uttar Pradesh is far more critical than any other state due to its sheer size and proximity to New Delhi. 

He added a BJP defeat in Uttar Pradesh would give a huge psychological advantage to the opposition parties that are struggling to unite against the ruling party. 

"It might also impact the BJP's alliances, as some of its coalition partners might see an opportunity and walk out, ultimately making the BJP politically weaker," Sahoo said.

Verniers, however, thinks that even in case of an upset for the BJP, the fundamental balance of power at the national level is not going to change. 

"The fact remains that the BJP remains unchallenged on the national stage," he said.

Social tensions in Uttar Pradesh reflect national problems

Over the past five years, Uttar Pradesh has seen numerous instances of attacks against religious minorities, journalists, and Dalits — once known as "untouchables," and the lowest group in the Indian caste system.

Yogi Adityanath, the state's chief minister and a hardline Hindu monk, has often used incendiary language targeting Muslims during election campaigns.

Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath speaking
Prime Minister Modi talks to Uttar Pradesh State Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk (left)Image: Altaf Qadri/AP Photo/picture alliance

Uttar Pradesh passed several laws under Adityanath that critics say favor the majority. Many of the chief minister's initiatives — ostensibly intended to enforce law and order — have disproportionately targeted minorities, dissenters and even journalists, they say.

"When we talk about India's democratic decline, we can see that it has taken a more exacerbated form in UP," said Verniers, who is currently teaching a course on Uttar Pradesh politics.

"The election is going to be a test of popularity for India's descent into an authoritarian form of government," he said.

"In many ways, UP represents a more complete version of what a Hindu rashtra [a Hindu majoritarian state] would look like at a national level. It can be seen as a prefiguration of that," he said.

Observers say a victory for the BJP would further embolden the party to continue targeting vulnerable groups in the state.  

If the BJP finds there is popular support for the idea of the nation they promote, Verniers added, they will be encouraged to push the bar further toward transforming India into an Hindu-dominated ethnic democracy.

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Edited by: Wesley Rahn