The State that holds the key to the re-election of Indian Prime Minister Modi

Ankit Srinivas Women in Matiara village near Prayagraj in Uttar PradeshAnkit Srinivas

A group of women in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically crucial state, with 80 seats in parliament.

As India votes to elect a new government, all eyes are on the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, commonly known by its initials UP.

Spread over an area roughly the size of Great Britain, the state has almost four times as many people. With an estimated population of 257 million, it is the most populous state in India and would be the fifth largest in the world if it were an independent country after India, China, the United States and Indonesia and ahead of Pakistan or Brazil.

The state is among three in India voting in all seven phases of elections that span 44 days. (Voting ends June 1 and results will be announced June 4.)

It is therefore not surprising that UP, which elects 80 MPs in the lower house of the 543-member parliament (the Lok Sabha), is seen as key to the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking to return for a third consecutive term. .

“It is often said that ‘the way to Delhi is through UP’ and a party that does well in the state usually governs India,” says Sharat Pradhan, a journalist in the state capital, Lucknow.

“Eight of India’s former prime ministers,” he adds, “have represented the state and in 2014, when Modi, originally from the western state of Gujarat, made his debut as an MP, he too chose UP.”

Modi took his seat in the ancient city of Varanasi in 2019 and intends to do so again this year.

Getty Images Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on an election tour in Varanasi. fake images

Narendra Modi seeks third consecutive term as Prime Minister of India

So Modi has been on a whirlwind tour of the state, holding roadshows and addressing rallies (sometimes as many as seven in a single day) to convince voters to support his party. He has set his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a target of 370 seats; a match needs 272 to win.

In 2014, the BJP won 71 seats in the state and in 2019 it won 62. This time, party leaders say, they are targeting more than 70, including all of its 80 seats.

The math, says Gaurav Kapoor of the opposition Congress Party, is simple: “a party that wins 70 seats here needs only 202 more to form a government.”

Earlier this month, when Modi arrived in the city to file his nomination, accompanied by the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed Hindu monk-turned-politician, thousands of supporters gathered to cheer him on.

A truck painted saffron (the color associated with the BJP) and decorated with marigold flowers transported them as the cavalcade made its way through the narrow streets of the ancient city.

Modi saluted and raised a replica of the lotus flower, the symbol of his party, while men and women dressed in saffron-colored clothes and caps raised slogans in support.

Getty Images Akhilesh Yadav (left) and Rahul Gandhi salute at an election rally in UPfake images

Opposition leaders Akhilesh Yadav (left) and Rahul Gandhi (right) have attracted huge crowds at their rallies in Uttar Pradesh.

It is not just the BJP that is eyeing the state considered “the biggest prize” in Indian elections. The Congress, which was dominant in the state for four decades until it was displaced by local parties in 1991, is fighting here in alliance with the regional Samajwadi Party (SP). The alliance has also stated that “we are winning 79 seats and have a fight in one.”

The June 4 vote count is likely to show that claims from both sides are exaggerated, but analysts point out that every election in the last 10 years in the state has gone in favor of the BJP. And the upbeat atmosphere on Modi’s tour reflected that self-confidence.

Most Varanasi residents in the crowd spoke about the transformation their city has undergone in the last decade: the new roads that have been built, the expansion of the Kashi-Vishwanath temple and the groomed banks of the Ganges River.

Watching Mr. Modi’s procession from his shop along the roadshow route, Ambrish Mittal, a chemist, says, “The city’s roads are cleaner and the long power outages that plunged the city into darkness for hours are history.

But despite its political importance, UP remains among the poorest states in India, although there have been some positive changes in recent years.

Getty Images A queue of voters in Uttar Pradesh, May 2024fake images

With an estimated population of 257 million, Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India.

Government data shows that millions more now have electricity, access to toilets and use clean fuel compared to five years ago.

But UP still has the highest concentration of poor in the world: 23% of its population is registered as multidimensionally poor even after tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty.

The state also records tens of thousands of violent crimes against women each year and continues to make headlines for cases in which the accused are politically influential men.

And while these ills have plagued the state historically, opposition parties have seized on them and raised them at their campaign rallies, as the BJP has been in power nationally for a decade and has also ruled UP for seven years.

The huge turnout at its meetings, opposition leaders say, reflects voters’ disenchantment with the BJP.

“Until a few weeks ago, elections in the state seemed like a one-sided contest with the odds stacked against us,” says Abhishek Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party’s youth wing and his party’s star activist.

But he believes the opposition campaign has gained momentum as unemployment and rising prices have become major issues.

Getty Images A woman begs for alms in Uttar Pradeshfake images

Tens of millions of poor people live in Uttar Pradesh

The BJP claims that a lot of investments have now started coming into the state and there has been an industrial revival, but Congress’s Gaurav Kapoor says the government’s failure to establish a new industry or create jobs has alienated many voters.

“Temples are the new industry for Mr. Modi. Post-Covid, the only business that has progressed in the state are hotels and restaurants and other things that have to do with religious tourism. But young people want jobs.”

BJP’s Ashwani Shahi, however, blames the opposition parties for everything that is wrong in the State.

“In 2017, when the BJP won UP, we inherited a state that was poor and had high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. We have started working to change that.

“But it takes time to lift people out of poverty. I believe that by 2029 we will be able to lift 90% of people out of poverty.”

Shahi admits there is some opposition to incumbency, but the BJP will continue to triumph in Uttar Pradesh – and the rest of India – thanks to Modi.

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