India's populous state begins voting in keen poll
India's most populous state went to the polls on Saturday, with
millions set to vote in a keenly fought provincial election that is
expected to give a hint about the political fortunes of the two major
The northern heartland state of Uttar Pradesh is home to about 170
million people, more than the combined populations of Russia and
Australia, and 16 million are eligible to vote in the first of a
seven-stage ballot spread over the next month. Two caste-based parties
are leading the fight for power in one of India's least developed
The two regional parties - the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan
Samaj Party - are running neck and neck according to pre-poll surveys.
Neither is expected to win a clear majority in the 403-member state
They are expected to depend on the support of the Hindu nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress party, which heads the central
government, to secure a majority, making the performance of the two
national parties critical.
"This is the real battleground," said election analyst Yashwant
Deshmukh. "The U.P. election will begin the countdown for the 2009
"The entire top leadership of the country is campaigning in far-flung
corners of the state which happens in no other state," he said.
Tens of thousands of armed federal and state police were deployed for
the vote, as previous elections have witnessed violent clashes between
supporters of rival parties and candidates, many of whom are accused of
crimes. Election officials said 839 candidates were in the fray in 62
constituencies voting on Saturday.
Although the poll is being fought mainly on local issues and the
performance of the ruling Samajwadi Party, it is also expected to
reflect voter perceptions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's central
government, which is battling criticism over rising prices and economic
reforms. It has also become a matter of prestige for India's famous
Nehru-Gandhi political family, as an Uttar Pradesh constituency has long
been its base. But the Congress party that the mily has long led has
sunk to a historic low due to the onslaught of regional parties over the
years. Most early voters were women or the elderly and few seemed
optimistic that the election would make a difference.
"The situation here has been such that we have always been labouring
hard and will continue to do so," said Mohammad Ayub Khan, 76, a leather
businessman in Kanpur city.
"Politics is a corrupt business and nothing will change. But I have
come to vote as it is my fundamental right," he said. Jalaluddin, a
47-year-old businessman who uses only one name, seemed to agree.
"All parties are the same," he said after casting his ballot in
Kanpur. "I have voted hoping for change. If my candidate does not
perform I will not vote for him again."
The electronic ballots are due to be counted on May 11 and results
expected the same day.