John Elliott: India's Modi Faces the Voters' Verdict

Indians line up to cast their vote during the state assembly election in the village of Kairana, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, on February 11. John Elliott writes that if the Bharatiya Janata Party wins in Uttah Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will claim it as acceptance of his controversial de-monetization project that was launched last November and is still causing shortages of banknotes after three months of widespread social and economic disruption. It will also boost him politically two years ahead of the next general election, in 2019. Cathal McNaughton/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

State assembly elections that are now in progress in five states will indicate how successful Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in meeting the aspirations of electors who voted him into power with a landslide victory three years ago to change the way India is run after ineffective national governments.

Uttar Pradesh is the biggest prize, but the states of Punjab and Goa could make political history by launching another agent of change, the Aam Aadmi (People's) Party (AAP), into national politics outside its current base of Delhi, where it was elected two years ago.

This means that the current elections are vitally important for three political leaders: Modi, who is desperate to prove himself by winning the massive state of Uttar Pradesh; Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP, who wants the Punjab and Goa results to propel his party to other states; and Rahul Gandhi, the fading Congress Party's hapless dynast, who urgently needs success in UP, where he is focusing his electioneering with help from his sister, Priyanka.

Related: Indian budget aims to make amends for Modi's banknote ban

Voting took place in Punjab and Goa on February 4 and began in UP on February 11. There will be another seven polling days in UP, finishing on March 9. They are spread out because security forces have to be relocated across the vast state, with its 140 million voters in a population of 220 million (more than Brazil, the world's fifth-largest country). Voting is also taking place in Uttarakhand, previously part of UP, and Manipur in India's northeast. The votes will be counted on March 11, and exit poll results will be announced on the ninth evening.

Modi's Desperation

UP is always regarded as a bellwether state. That is especially so this time because of Modi's desperate desire to defeat an alliance between Congress and the regional Samajwadi Party, which is in power. The other main contender is the Bahujan Samaj Party, headed by Mayawati, a maverick former chief minister. But it is running a distant third in opinion polls, though they may be proved to be wrong.

If his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins, Modi will claim it as acceptance of his controversial de-monetization project that was launched on November 8 and is still causing shortages of banknotes after three months of widespread social and economic disruption. It will also boost him politically two years ahead of the next general election, in 2019.

If he loses to the Samajwadi-Congress alliance, however, it will seriously damage his political standing and that of Amit Shah, his chief henchman and the hard-line BJP president, and will provide Rahul Gandhi with a desperately needed victory.

Opinion polls are divided on who will win. Akhilesh Yadav, the 43-year-old current Samajwadi chief minister who has just won a leadership battle with his father and former party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is drawing support from India's youth. But Gandhi, 46, is a weak ally. The BJP seems a stronger contender but is weakened by the absence of a chief ministerial candidate, making Modi the focus of the campaign with Shah.

While UP is significant, it is Punjab and Goa that could have a major disruptive effect on the future of Indian politics. If the AAP does well in either or both of those states, even if it does not win, it will be seen as a potential national political party. Its next target would then be Gujarat, Modi's home state, where assembly elections are due at the end of this year.

Some recent opinion polls are tilting in the AAP's favor, with some even giving it a chance to win in the Punjab and upset a traditional BJP versus Congress contest in Goa.

Turnout was high on February 4, with 75 percent of the 20 million electorate voting in Punjab and 83 percent of the 1.1 million in Goa. This could be good for the AAP because it indicates a desire for a shift away from established parties, notably Shiromani Akali Dal, a state-level party, which is in coalition with the BJP in Punjab, and also away from the current BJP state government in Goa.

Punjab needs a change from the Sikh-dominated Congress and Akali Dal parties, which have dominated the state's politics for decades, with one and then the other in power. The state's once prosperous agricultural areas have problems, and widespread corruption has deterred private sector investment and the maintenance of public services.

There is a high level of youth unemployment and a serious drug problem among the young people, protected by politicians and fed by supplies from neighboring Pakistan. "The smugglers throw parcels of heroin across the border in bottles, or enlist farmers to carry the drugs after pushing the parcels into long plastic pipes," a counterintelligence official in the Punjab police told Ellen Barry of The New York Times.

The possibility of a Punjab victory for the AAP first emerged early last year in surprising opinion polls that gave it a clear lead, with as many as 75 to over 100 seats in the 117-member assembly. It then lost ground with a series of scandals and defections that developed as the established parties tried to annihilate the upstart's surge in popularity.

Indications now are that it has recovered, even though it has no experienced local political leader to parade as a potential chief minister and no ethnic links to the Sikhs, who make up 60 percent of the population.

Delhi Problems

Kejriwal, a prominent anti-corruption campaigner, formed the AAP in November 2012 but failed disastrously to govern effectively when he led a minority Delhi administration after assembly polls in December 2013. He and his fellow ministers spent more energy on street protests than in trying to run the city, and he resigned after 49 days.

The next election led to an AAP victory in February 2015 when it won support from both young people and the poor. This was a major defeat for Modi because the BJP had expected to win and was routed with just three assembly seats versus the AAP's 67.

The AAP has had a bumpy ride since then. The BJP has undermined its policies whenever possible, acting mainly through a compliant lieutenant governor who has extensive powers because Delhi is only a quasi-state, and has it blocked plans ranging from water supplies and buses to schools.

The AAP failed to win any of Delhi's parliamentary seats in the 2014 general election and did not win anywhere else, apart from four seats in Punjab, despite fielding candidates across the country. That made it look as if it had been marginalized in both national and Delhi politics. But it has rebuilt itself and has replaced its former image of disruption and protest with a more constructive approach.

This a major blow to Modi, who sees his program of economic and governmental reform, along with his Hindu nationalist ideology, as the way to build a strong India. That voters are still looking for an alternative must worry him and Amit Shah.

Better Not to Win?

But it might be better for the AAP if it does not win an election this time. It does not seem to be ready to form a government in Punjab, unless Kejriwal plans to be chief minister, which has been denied. It would be better if it was a strong runner-up in both Punjab and Goa, because this would give it a chance to build local experience and develop senior politicians ready for the 2019 general election and then the next state elections.

Meanwhile, it could turn its attention to harrying Modi and Shah in Gujarat next winter.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).