KANTH, India — The main street in this small manufacturing town is abuzz with energy this month as people all across the enormous northern state of Uttar Pradesh take part in a crucial multistage election.
Walls in the town are plastered with candidate posters. Political volunteers’ long convoys roil traffic. Pamphlets litter the streets, and fiery speeches blare all day from loudspeakers.
With more than 220 million people, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and a national political bellwether. The legislative election currently underway — it began Feb. 11 and will unfold in seven phases ending March 8 — will be the biggest democratic exercise in the world this year.
It will also be India’s most keenly watched. Although many of the issues galvanizing voters are local, the outcome in Uttar Pradesh is likely to be taken as a midterm report card on the national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Many voters interviewed in villages in the western part of the state expressed anger at Modi over a ban on large-denomination currency that he instituted without warning Nov. 8, ostensibly to combat corruption, counterfeiting and terrorism. The move, known as demonetization, triggered public panic and was a major blow to businesses across the country.
Fasahat Karim, a manufacturer of hospital bandages in Kanth, said the looms in his small plant lay idle for two months because there was no money to pay workers or buy raw materials. He said he has lost $7,000 in the past three months.
“Our country is not poor, but Modi’s decision made us poor overnight,” Karim said.
Not all voters appeared angry, however, a testament to the complicated caste and religious politics at play in this still largely impoverished state with a population bigger than Brazil’s.
Karim is Muslim. Down the street, another bandage-maker who is Hindu praised Modi, calling him a fearless slayer of the corrupt and their “black” money. Long bank lines, price increases and other inconveniences will prove to be worth it over the long term, he said.
“We all suffered, but we know Modi did it for the national good,” Krishna Mohan Agarwal said, adding that he and others in Kanth would vote for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “not because of the local candidate, but because it is Modi’s party.”
The BJP hopes to take advantage of Modi’s larger-than-life image to trounce the young incumbent chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, 43, a member of the state’s regionally prominent Samajwadi Party who is fighting to secure a second term.
In the national election of 2014, Modi’s popularity helped the BJP to victory in most of Uttar Pradesh’s voting districts after he traveled the state pledging “good days” to come.
But after three years of sometimes rocky governance, he now faces his first big test as a national leader as his party works toward reelection in 2019.
“In many ways, the election in Uttar Pradesh is like a mini-referendum by nearly one-fifth of the country’s voters,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and professor at Ashoka University, near New Delhi.
“What is the people’s verdict on Modi’s demonetization decision? Will the people blame his government for the hardship, or will they view it as a blow against the corrupt rich? This election will give us a clue to the answer,” Rangarajan said.
Voting is also underway in four other, smaller states. But a win in Uttar Pradesh would do most to boost the BJP’s numbers in the upper house of the national parliament, where the party now controls only the lower house. The upper house has opposed some of Modi’s economic reform measures, including a proposed law to ease the sale of farmland for industrial development.
Despite the discontent over the currency ban, local candidates have not hesitated to campaign on Modi’s coattails. “I tell voters to strengthen Modi’s hand so that he can bring about big, sweeping changes in the country,” said Ritesh Gupta, a BJP candidate in the city of Moradabad. “I talk about traffic jams and overpasses. But Modi’s national image dominates my campaign 100 percent.”
At an election rally here this month, Modi promised to write off farmers’ loans and lower the crime rate if his party wins, but he carefully avoided the currency issue.
Analysts say the election is shaping up as a three-way contest among Modi; Yadav and his alliance with the Indian National Congress party; and Mayawati (who uses only one name), the fiery leader of the state’s lower-caste communities, once called untouchables, and a former four-term state chief minister. All of them are vowing to spur development in the laggard state, which has high rates of poverty, child malnutrition and maternal mortality.
In the end, analysts say, people may vote along religious lines.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Muslim voters constitute more than 20 percent of the electorate in roughly 145 out of 403 voting districts in Uttar Pradesh. They could sway the outcome if they vote as a bloc against the BJP, said Sanjay Kumar, the center’s director.
In its election manifesto, the BJP vowed to build a large temple at a controversial site in the state that has been a flash point for Hindu-Muslim rioting for years. The party also promised to end the controversial Muslim practice of instant divorce.
Muslims say they feel threatened by the BJP’s strident Hindu rhetoric and what they consider the party’s appeasement of its Hindu core constituency.
“I tell my voters we must oppose the BJP because they will interfere with our Islamic laws, close down meat shops, beat up Muslims on the mere suspicion of eating beef and cause religious tension,” said Anisur Rahman Saifi, the local candidate from Yadav’s party in Kanth. Most of those in the butchering trade in Uttar Pradesh are Muslims.
But the prospect of Muslims rallying together is also causing some Hindu voters to look to Modi for protection.
“Modi is a strong leader for Hindus. He speaks for us,” said Anita Bachan Singh, a 41-year-old farming woman in Bhanpur village. “If all the Muslims get together to defeat the BJP, why shouldn’t Hindus get together to make Modi’s party win?”