Why Uttar Pradesh is India's battleground state

Rahul Gandhi A good performance by Congress will boost Rahul Gandhi's standing

The battle for Uttar Pradesh has begun, and in the words of one commentator, the "ground is shaking in faraway Delhi".

Uttar Pradesh is one of India's key bellwether states with a population of 200 million, similar to that of Brazil. In February, over 100 million of its people will be eligible to vote for its 403 assembly seats in a staggered seven-phase state election.

Uttar Pradesh is also India's chronic under-achiever. It has provided the country with eight prime ministers, but remains one of the poorest and most backward states in what must be one of the cruellest ironies of Indian democracy.

Uttar Pradesh's human development index ranking - 18 - has remained unchanged since 2001. Its per capita income and literacy is considerably lower and the poverty much higher than the Indian average. Health care is in a shambles. Federal funds allotted for social welfare projects appear to achieve little on the ground, thanks to appalling delivery systems and endemic graft. Primordial loyalties based on caste, the bane of modern India, still decide voting decisions.

So the upcoming polls will demonstrate whether the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, led by Mayawati, the mercurial leader of the Dalits (former known as "untouchables") will be able to hold on to power. Pitted against her is the Samajwadi Party (SP), another powerful regional party, mainly representing the interests of a caste grouping called Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and led by the ageing former wrestler Mulayam Singh Yadav. These two parties have for a long time marginalised the two national parties, the Congress and the Hindu nationalist BJP, in a state which has, in the words of a commentator, a "two-dominant-party multi-party system".

But, as always, the Uttar Pradesh election is a harbinger of what is to come in Indian politics.

This time around, it will demonstrate whether Rahul Gandhi, fourth-generation Nehru-Gandhi dynast and prime minister in waiting, has finally come of age. The 41-year-old Harvard-educated heir apparent has staked his reputation on the election and launched a vigorous campaign in a state where the last time his party even came close to 100 seats was some 20 years ago.

Low expectations

The expectations are ridiculously low, say analysts. Mr Gandhi is not even expected to win the state for his party. His supporters say that if he can help the party even treble its tally from the paltry 22 seats it holds in the present state assembly, he will have proved himself as an effective vote-catcher. Mr Gandhi is apparently willing to wait - "endlessly?", quip critics - to prove that he is fit to rule the country, but a decent showing in Uttar Pradesh will help his case.

A supporter holds a cutout of the map of India with images of Mayawati, the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati is a Dalit icon

More importantly, the polls will be an acid test for the Congress, India's beleaguered ruling party.

Battered by an avalanche of corruption charges and scorned by critics for running a weak, reactive and indecisive coalition government, the party is floundering. The zesty and popular anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare has effectively put it on the mat with his demand for a strong anti-corruption law, on which the party has flip-flopped embarrassingly before tabling what many say was a patchy bill in the parliament last week. An improved showing by Congress will help it combat the ire of the angry Indian street, which is fed up with corruption.

A clutch of early - and many would say, premature - opinion polls show that Congress votes are poised to increase, though it is not clear whether it will translate into a vastly larger number of seats. They also predict that the ruling BSP's vote share will decline. If that happens, Congress may well get to play the role of a spoiler and join hands with the BSP's rival, the Samajwadi Party, to form a coalition government.

It is not going to be easy at all. Under four-and-a-half years of Ms Mayawati's rule, the state has recorded an average of over 7% growth a year, a tad less than India's average of 8.15%. The growth, studies show, has been driven by massive state investments in building roads and related infrastructure. Infant mortality has declined, and some 100,000 teachers have been hired to narrow the yawning teacher-student ratio.

However, analysts say, all this may be undermined by the fact that Ms Mayawati's government is seen to be soft on corruption and the infiltration of criminals, another scourge of politics in Uttar Pradesh.

Sensing an improved performance or desperate for one, depending on how you look at it, the Congress has churned out sops in the run up to the polls. Last week, it announced a small reservation for minorities in government jobs and education places with an eye on the Muslim vote - 19% of the population is Muslim in Uttar Pradesh. Then it rolled out a cleverly timed guaranteed cheap food scheme. The party hopes its multi-billion-dollar job guarantee scheme will fetch some votes, but the scheme has reportedly not fared very well in the state.

The astute political commentator MJ Akbar, however, offers a tantalising scenario even if the Congress does reasonably well. It provides, he says, the ballast to make Mr Gandhi prime minister after the presidential elections in June. The harried prime minister Manmohan Singh will be 80, and "can make age an excuse to retire". The Congress will welcome the change, the allies will submit and Mr Gandhi, emboldened by the inevitable upper-class English media hype, will call an early general election in November, predicts Mr Akbar. But Uttar Pradesh's canny voters can throw up surprises which can upset the best-made plans of every political party.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Ms Mayawati will raise her tally to 303 because of her highly performing best and meritorious governance. She will be the next Prime Minister of PraBuddha Bharath.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Rahul ... Harvard Educated? What qualifications? BBC lying?
    All over the world the dynastic politics is shown the door, why does BBC allow such authors to propogate such nasty views about a "fake Gandhi" family member allegedly becoming leader of a country?
    Mayawati's statistics of good governance is clearly visible, but Indian media is too casteist to say that. Now has BBC become casteist?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It would not make any difference whether Congress comes or the present parties stay in power (BSP or SP). India lacks leadership. First, scrap the civil service system inherited from pre-indepence British Raj. Second, adopt a presidential system of democracy where the leader will be strong enough to take decisions. Third, zero tolerance on corruption. Will these things happen? I do not think so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Indian Democracy will never produce good leadership until the average voter is easily enticed by money/TVs or promises of government jobs to buy their votes. If this fails than the age old technique of inciting the voter against other communities seems to work. This politics of Entice/Incite can't bring true Democracy. India's potential is being wasted by these politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It is important because it is laboratory of country....what happens in UP will decide many things on central level. Of course it is a test of Rahul...it is test all other party too. People of UP don't allegiance to any party on the basis of governance they allegiance to that party which actually benefit their community. Mayawati as a dalit icon had given ticket to upper class Hindus and Muslim.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I fully support Anna Hazare, Kiran Bedi and the others in the struggle against corruption in India. Like the film director Seeman and others in Tamil Nadu worked hard to get rid of the Congress, Congress should be kicked out of India to eliminate corruption and have true democarcy in India. Congress leadership and puppet PM are the centre of corruption and thus be eliminated from power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Rahul Gandhi.. Harvard Educated.??? what a farce...

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Evident to me - candidates must pay attention to needs of Utter Pradesh, must not only promise what will be done, but must be quick to get it done. I guess this could be said for all voting districts, but in poor areas, this keeping-of-promises is most extraordinarily important. And yes, incumbents elected should receive a public-wide report card specifying the keeping-of-promises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Whichever party pays satisfyingly to the state constituents should win. And if all parties have same principle, then the majority wins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Report card intervention had important effects. Poor have distinct preferences for reps who focus on their issues. Exit surveys helped gather info on what issues were = price rises & local development. Voting patterns tracked these preferences. Candidates who rationed foods got a boost. Incumbents who spent more of discretionary funds in slums increased their voter share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Any Indian is better than an Italian Ragul and Sonia Gandhi. Under the current congress leadership corruption, collaboration in war crimes and human rights abuses and India is robbed at all levels.

    Until India spring starts, states show strong opposition to mockery and corruption and throw out the Italian connection, India will continue to fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Impact: In rural UP, people seemed convined not to vote along caste lines. Voter turnout increased. Survey collected by Center for the Study of Developing Societies showed likelihood that individual would vote for party which represented their caste decreased from 57% to 52%. This was accompanied by a reduction in vote share of candidates facing criminal charges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Second info. campaign implemented during Delhi 2008 election by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), Delhi-based NGO. SNS produced “report cards” on 70 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Delhi, & published them in Hindustan Newspaper, provided free in poor areas. Report card - candidate’s attendance, how many questions asked, work in committees, & how they spent MLA Development Fund.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Researchers (together with local NGOs), evaluated multiple pre-election voter education campaigns (PEVACs). A first campaign (conducted with Sarathi) in Uttar Pradesh during the 2007 election examined how voters in rural areas would respond to messages urging them to not vote on caste lines but to vote for development. This campaign was conducted in villages using puppet shows and posters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    India is largest democracy. Countries like Australia and Malta, where voting is mandatory, see voter turnouts of 95% & 94% respectively. This could be one answer to low turnout in India, but enforcing mandatory voting would create a whole new level of bureaucracy and likely corruption. Answers do not come easily, but answers are necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Battle for Uttar Pradesh - does ground shake in Dlehi? February comes - over 100M people eligible to vote. But the second lowest turnout of 44.3% in 2009 was in Bihar, poorest state. Next Uttar Pradesh, another very poor state, with 47.2%. This makes mocks the concept poor highly prize vote & turn out in huge numbers. In fact thousands of poor just do not seem motivated. Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Mohandas Gandhi formed the Congress for the Independence struggle and not as a political party. Politicians use this brand to take advantage that is now chaired by an Italian woman who has no interest in India. Indian foolishness, incompetence and slavery mentality are exposed to the world. 2G Scam, Commonwealth corruption and other mockery practices are evidence of India today!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I never ever have voted Mayawati or support her party, but she have done pretty good comparing all others to whom we experience since many year. So I am changed and primarily support and asked many to be prudent in selection of candidate.
    At least she maintain the moderate speed for the states, whereas country has flopped in almost every arena....!!


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