India’s most populous state begins voting in key test for Narendra Modi

NEW DELHI — India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh began voting on Thursday in the first of a series of local elections that will be a key test of the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his governing party.

With a population almost as big as that of Brazil, keeping power in the bellwether state would give the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a boost in its bid for a third successive victory at nationwide parliamentary polls due by 2024.

Television footage from polling stations showed lines of people bundled up against the winter cold as they waited to cast their votes.

Defeat in Uttar Pradesh, or in any of the other three states it holds that also stage elections this month, would add to pressure on the Hindu nationalist party amid criticism of high unemployment and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If the BJP loses, especially in UP, that will be a big setback,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank based in New Delhi. “But you can call this a semifinal. The game in 2024 will be very, very different.”

For the main opposition Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the calculation appears more bleak. Of the five states where voting begins this month, it holds only Punjab in the northwest.

“Congress desperately needs to win states, even if it’s smaller states, just to get back in the habit of winning. Otherwise they are in trouble,” Verma added.

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