Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Bellwether Election for India ; in Uttar Pradesh Vote, Key Issues in National Politics Will Be Tested

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Bellwether Election for India ; in Uttar Pradesh Vote, Key Issues in National Politics Will Be Tested

Article excerpt

Indian politics often seems like a never-ending chess game. In Uttar Pradesh, all those moveable parts are coming into play in a single state.

With more than 200 million people, including some of the poorest on the planet, Uttar Pradesh could be the fifth-largest country in the world. Instead, it is India's biggest state, biggest political prize and, with elections beginning Wednesday, India's biggest political unknown.

"This election has an absolutely different quality," said Anil Verma, a political science scholar at Christ Church College in Kanpur and a leading analyst on Uttar Pradesh politics. "In 2007, we had a definite sense of how things were going to be. Things are very, very strange, to my mind."

Indian politics often seems like a never-ending chess game, played on multiple boards by multiple players in elections that deliver multiple messages. In Uttar Pradesh, all those moveable parts are coming into play in a single state. Analysts see this race as a barometer of many of the key issues shaping Indian politics: the changing roles of caste and religion; the impact of public disgust over corruption; and growing demands that the broader population share in the fruits of economic growth.

It is tempting to frame the election as a showdown between two of India's most powerful political figures: Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Indian National Congress party, which leads the national coalition government; and Mayawati, the state's incumbent chief minister and the country's most powerful low-caste political leader.

Five years ago, Uttar Pradesh vaulted Ms. Mayawati, who uses a single name, into national prominence with a sweeping victory that gave her Bahujan Samaj Party, or B.S.P., control of the state government. It demonstrated the political muscle of her core supporters, Dalits, the lower-caste Hindus once known as untouchables, and inspired talk about whether she could one day become prime minister.

Mr. Gandhi, himself widely considered a possible future prime minister, has focused on Uttar Pradesh in recent years, trying to woo Ms. Mayawati's Dalit supporters, as well as Muslim voters, in order to restore the Congress party to power here. Analysts agree that only by regaining Uttar Pradesh -- which it lost 22 years ago and has been unable to regain -- can the Congress party move closer to unshackling itself from coalition politics at the national level and become a true majority party.

Yet Uttar Pradesh can hardly be boiled down to two people and two parties. The regional Samajwadi Party once controlled the state before voters turned its leaders out, partly because of a reputation for lawlessness. Now it is trying to recast itself and tap into the aspirations of young voters by offering to expand education and distribute free laptops.

"People want change," said Akhilesh Singh Yadav, 39, who might become chief minister if the Samajwadi Party can regain power. "People want to throw this government out."

The election will be held in seven phases, as voting rotates to different regions of the state before the final ballots are cast on March 3. Results will be announced on March 6, along with tallies from four other, smaller states: Punjab, Goa, Uttarkhand and Manipur. …

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