NEW DELHI (The Straits Times/ ANN) - Voting for state assembly seats crucial for Indian leader after demonetisation exercise.
Millions of Indians cast their votes yesterday, at the start of what is one of the nation's most important elections and a barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity in the wake of his decision to demonetise high-value banknotes.
Yesterday was the first phase of a multi-stage election in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with 204 million people. Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have campaigned hard to win the state, which is important politically because it sends 80 MPs to the Lower House of Parliament, the largest number of any state.
The elections will be held in stages this month and next. Voters queued outside polling booths under tight security in 73 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh, which just 21/2 years ago voted overwhelmingly in support of Modi during the country's parliamentary election.
Turnout was more than 50 per cent as of late afternoon.
Victory would be a major boost for Modi, after the deeply controversial and sudden withdrawal of 1,000 and 500 rupee banknotes from circulation led to a major shortage of cash and severe disruption to businesses, with the rural poor hard hit.
The first phase of voting, where 25.9 million people are eligible to vote, is particularly important for the BJP, which has its best chance of picking up the maximum number of seats from these constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, which has 404 assembly constituencies in total.
A win in the elections would also help to boost the BJP's numbers in the Upper House. The BJP has a majority of seats in the Lower House but a minority in the Upper House.
"The BJP has gone into the campaign without local leaders, and is depending on the charisma of the national leadership. In that sense, one factor in the elections will be the persona of the prime minister, and the demonetisation exercise that he has staked a lot on," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University.
The BJP is facing a tough electoral battle against an alliance of the Indian National Congress and the Samajwadi Party, and also against the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by the popular Mayawati, a champion of the lower-caste Dalits.
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has attracted attention by holding joint rallies with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
Some commentators said the first phase will set the tone for the rest of the elections, and the key would be whether the Muslim vote consolidates behind the Congress alliance, or gets divided across parties.
Muslims make up about 30 per cent of voters in the first phase. Across Uttar Pradesh, 20 per cent of the state's population is Muslim.
"These constituencies are important for the BJP. They can't expect similar support in eastern or central Uttar Pradesh. Muslims are going to play a major role," said Dr Aftab Alam, an associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.
He added that the BSP has also been wooing Muslim voters.
Meanwhile, the BJP has courted controversy in the state. In its manifesto, it promised to shut down slaughterhouses and launch inquiries into alleged reports of Hindu families migrating from Muslim-dominated areas in Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP also promised to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya at a disputed site, and to protect the cow, an animal that Hindus hold as sacred.
These promises have raised complaints from critics, who say that the BJP is falling back on Hindutva, an ideology that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life.
The various party leaders have also promised development, with Yadav, who had promised bicycles and laptops in earlier elections, this time offering young people free smartphones.