India’s biggest state, and its 220 million residents, go to vote

Between February and March, voters in five states (Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Goa) in India will cast their ballots in an election that has serious national implications. Headlining the five states is Uttar Pradesh (UP), which is home to approximately 220 million Indians, which alone would make it the world’s fifth most populated country.

State elections in India are an important affair compared to other federal democracies. They receive extensive national and in this case, international coverage. One reason is India’s parliamentary set-up. The upper house in Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, comprises representatives selected by state legislatures. The political party in power in a state is able to send its party members to the Rajya Sabha. And no state sends more representatives to Parliament than Uttar Pradesh. It accounts for 85 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house, directly elected) and 31 out of 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha. While not as important as the directly elected Lok Sabha, (financial bills such as the Budget are not subject to Rajya Sabha approval), most bills require approval of both houses to become legislation. Therefore, political power in a state translates to political power in New Delhi.

Currently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and its larger coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), own a majority in the Lok Sabha. However, they remain a minority coalition in the Rajya Sabha. Legislation, including crucial reforms to labour and land acquisition laws, has been blocked or never even introduced.

However, the stakes in these elections are far more serious than parliamentary arithmetic. For starters, the election comes slightly past the mid-way point between Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 victory and the 2019 general election, and with more than a sixth of Indian voters eligible to vote, the election is being seen as a referendum on the Modi government’s policies. The most consequential of these was the demonetisation of the ₹500 ($7.48) and ₹1000 ($14.95) notes.

On November 8, 2016, like many people around the world, Indians were confronted with a shocking piece of news. For Indians, the impact was far more immediate. The government announced its decision to scrap 86 per cent of the country’s circulating currency as legal tender, asking the public to go to banks and switch their ₹500 and ₹1000 notes for new ₹500 and ₹2000 notes. The objective was to eliminate illegal cash transactions in a single stroke, and bring more money under a tax umbrella. The government’s policy was hastily implemented, and it resulted in long queues at banks and disruptions for the working public. The policy’s long-term success may be debated, but it is expected that India’s economic growth will suffer in the coming quarters. The policy has also affected local businesses and farmers, many of who do not have easy access to the banking system.


Image courtesy of Public.Resource.Org, © 2009, some rights reserved.

A win for the BJP would reaffirm Prime Minister Modi as India’s most valuable political commodity, which would help his government push through legislation in parliament. Such legislation could include crucial reforms to land acquisition and labour laws, all of which will require significant political capital. Given the scale of the election, it will also serve as a harbinger for the 2019 general election, which is a little more than two years away.

Unlike any other country in the world, India hosts many political parties, most which appeal to a state or an identity group. The Election Commission recognises seven national parties, and 48 state ones. Only two parties, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the BJP, have a truly national presence. All other parties are left contending in a few states each. With a diverse population of more than 200 million, Uttar Pradesh is host to many regional parties. Two of them, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), have held power in the state for most years since the late 1980s. In the 21st century, the incumbent has always lost the election.

The incumbent party this time is the SP, led by 43-year old Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav. In the run-up to the election, he was in a much-publicised feud with his father, Mulayam, and uncle, Shivpal, who wanted to put forward a different set of candidates and have more control over the party. Akhilesh’s refusal to accede to their demands created a family drama that nearly split the party into two (in India, parties have officially split into factions for decades) right before the election. It took the intervention of the Election Commission to resolve the matter.

On the other side of the aisle, the BSP has remained in political wilderness ever since losing power in 2012. It has no seats in the directly elected lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, and is not in power in any state. BSP is led by Mayawati, who has been Chief Minister on four previous occasions. Like other members of the party, she claims to be a champion of the Dalit community, who are made of lower caste Hindus, and are significantly behind other Hindus in socio-economic development.

The election campaign for Uttar Pradesh has reached fever pitch, with each of the three contesting parties littering their campaigns with personal jabs at each other’s candidates. The scale of the election has divided voting into seven phases, with the last one set for March 8. Turnout in the first three phases has remained above 60 per cent. Publishing exit polls from the concluded phases is illegal, in order to prevent voters from being influenced. The election also remains impossible to predict. There are too many combinations of caste, and religion to definitely predict voting behaviour. Moreover, the first-past-the-post voting system means that a shift of even a few percentage points can result in drastic differences in the final seat count. Opinion polls are predicting a variety of different outcomes. An Assembly with no majority remains a possibility.

Given the made-for-television political drama provided by Indian politicians and the growing aspirations of voters, Indian elections make for a compelling story. Combining the other four states going to the polls, this election cycle is the world’s third largest after the US presidential election and India’s own general election. After New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest political prize. The candidates and voters certainly seem aware of the stakes.