India holds a key election in its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, pitting a powerful low caste leader against the ruling Congress Party, which wants to boost its influence in the politically important region. The voting here will be a test for the ruling party, which has been foundering in recent years.
Rains in some parts of Uttar Pradesh kept voters away from polling booths, early Wednesday, but polling picked up later in the day. The elections in this state of 200 million people will be held in seven stages in the coming weeks.
Although the main battle is being fought between two regional parties, the outcome will indicate the shape national politics will take in the next two years.
The Bahujan Samaj Party is headed by chief minister, Mayawati, a low caste icon. The main opposition comes from the Samajwadi Party. They are among several regional parties which have emerged as powerful players in Indian states, marginalizing national parties like the Congress Party.
Stakes are equally high for the Congress Party, which heads the federal coalition. It is not looking for an outright victory, but hopes to extend its influence in a state which sends 80 lawmakers to the national parliament.
In a sign of the importance of these polls, Rahul Gandhi, son of the party head Sonia Gandhi, has campaigned in the state for months.
Political analyst Ajoy Bose says a good showing in Uttar Pradesh could help the Congress Party regain momentum after being hit by corruption scandals and waning support.
“The Congress Party, which is now almost negligible in the U.P. assembly, if they are able to have a substantial increase, then they would see that as a revival of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and that, many feel would be the beginning of the comeback trail of the Congress,” Bose said.
A victory for a party allied to the Congress Party in the state could also empower the national government by giving it a reliable coalition partner at a time when its existing allies have turned rebellious. But a poor showing would dent its standing at the national level even further.
There is also much at stake for Rahul Gandhi - widely seen as a future prime minister. A strong showing in Uttar Pradesh could enhance the credibility of the latest leader of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who has yet to prove his political mettle.
He has been promising better development - more water, electricity and roads for one of India’s poorest states.
Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister Mayawati has been campaigning among low caste voters who form her key base. She says she has improved their lives through welfare projects during her five-year rule. The chief minister has emerged as a controversial politician, accused by her detractors of amassing personal wealth.
Political analyst Ajoy Bose says it is difficult to predict the outcome in Uttar Pradesh.
“I think that U.P. and, to some extent, the rest of the country, caste and community play a very important factor," Bose said. "But, to some extent, issues like development, issues like corruption are increasingly becoming important for India’s electorate and these also will play a role.”
Uttar Pradesh is one of five Indian states voting for new governments. The polls have already concluded in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and will be held next month in Goa. Counting will begin on March 6.