By JIM YARDLEY Published: February 7, 2012
LUCKNOW, India — With more than 200 million people, including some of the poorest on the planet, Uttar Pradesh is so big that it could be the fifth-largest country in the world. It is India’s biggest state, its biggest political prize and, with elections this month, its biggest political unknown.
“This election has an absolutely different quality,” said Anil Verma, a political scientist 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 seem like a never-ending chess game played on multiple boards by multiple players in elections that deliver multiple messages. In Uttar Pradesh, all those movable parts come into play in a single state. If Uttar Pradesh lacks an overriding issue this time, analysts regard the race as a barometer of many key issues shaping Indian politics: the changing roles of caste and religion, the impact of public disgust over corruption and the rising public desire to share 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 of the Indian National Congress party, which leads the national coalition government, and Mayawati, the state’s incumbent chief minister and India’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. Her victory demonstrated the political muscle of her core supporters, Dalits, the lower-caste Hindus once known as untouchables, and set off 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. 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, like Indian politics in general, can hardly be boiled down to two people and two parties. The regional Samajwadi Party controlled the state before voters turned it out, partly because of its reputation for lawlessness. Now it is trying to recast itself and tap into the aspirations of the young voters by offering to expand education and distribute laptops.
“People want change,” said Akhilesh Singh Yadav, 39, who might become chief minister if the Samajwadi Party can somehow regain power. “People want to throw this government out.”
The election will be held in seven phases, beginning on Wednesday, 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, Uttarakhand and Manipur. For the Congress Party, a strong showing in these states’ races could strengthen the national coalition government and help reverse a 2011 political year marked by scandal and ineffectiveness.
In Uttar Pradesh, the prizes are the 403 seats in the state assembly. Ms. Mayawati swept decisively into power five years ago by gaining 205 seats for a rare one-party majority. This time, her support is expected to weaken. The question is by how much. Her five-year term has been marked by scandals and corruption allegations, if also by programs to provide free housing for her Dalit vote base and others. In particular, she has been criticized for spending huge sums on parks and statues (including several of herself) and underfinancing social programs.
At a rally last week in Barabanki, Ms. Mayawati stood before a crowd of about 8,000 people, campaign flags fluttering. She acknowledged that “bad elements” had gotten into her party during the last election but attributed the state’s problems to the failure of the national government to provide adequate funds for state programs and welfare plans.
“We are trying to help all the poor people of all segments of society,” she said. “Because of that, the poor have benefited in our state.”
Yet poverty remains stubborn in Uttar Pradesh. One recent study concluded that 8 percent of the world’s poorest people reside there. Literacy levels are among the lowest in India; infant and maternal mortality levels are among the highest. India’s overall progress on poverty and health issues depends on faster progress in Uttar Pradesh — a point not lost on politicians trying to batter Ms. Mayawati.
“Do not underestimate the impact of Uttar Pradesh on India,” Mr. Gandhi said in a nationally televised news conference on Monday. “Uttar Pradesh is slowing India down, and it is not Uttar Pradesh’s fault. It is the fault of the leaders of Uttar Pradesh over the last 22 years.”
Mr. Gandhi and the Congress party have blamed caste politics for the lingering backwardness of Uttar Pradesh, promising to focus on development, yet caste and religion continue to shape political equations. Mr. Gandhi is trying to siphon away those Dalit groups that have seen the least progress under Ms. Mayawati’s tenure. The Congress is also trying to lure back Muslim voters, many of whom fled to the Samajwadi Party, with promises of affirmative action programs.
Yet Mr. Verma, the political scientist, said that Uttar Pradesh voters did seem to be shifting away from the trends of the past two decades, when voters thought that the best way to obtain the benefits of development was to elect someone of their own caste as a middleman.
“There appears to be a shift in emphasis,” he said. “Earlier, the emphasis was caste, and development through caste. But now the shift is to development, not caste.”
Given the likelihood that no single party will win a majority of assembly seats, analysts expect some sort of coalition government to be formed. Recent polls have suggested that the Samajwadi Party might win the most seats, with the Congress party also making significant gains. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., is also a factor, while no one is discounting Ms. Mayawati’s ability to rouse her core supporters.
“Understanding the murky quality of politics here is not easy to do,” Mr. Verma said.