Rahul Gandhi takes on Mayawati in UP polls
By Adnan Abidi
AYODHYA, India | Wed Feb 8, 2012 7:54pm IST
(Reuters) - Millions voted in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday, the first
stage of an election that tests support for Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh's troubled government ahead of a nationwide vote in two years.
The election in Uttar Pradesh, a state that is bigger than Brazil by
population, could have a bearing on who next governs India. It is a
closely fought four-way race pitting Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the
elite Gandhi dynasty, against Dalit leader Mayawati and two other
parties. Results will be announced on March 6.
Gandhi has staked his political reputation on reviving the Congress
party in a state it has not ruled for 22 years.
A good result could breathe new life into Prime Minister Singh's
second term, which has been plagued by corruption and splits in the
"It would boost the party's morale hugely. A better performance of the
party in these polls will give it the confidence it requires to
strategise for the general elections in 2014," said Pralay Kanungo,
professor at the centre for political studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal
The son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, Gandhi
is considered likely to take over as prime minister from Singh, but
the timing is not clear. He said this week that becoming prime
minister did not interest him for now.
A poor showing in Uttar Pradesh would leave the Congress weaker than
ever as the country gears up for the general election. The party now
holds 22 of 403 seats in the local legislature and the most optimistic
forecasts would give it about 80.
'OTHERS DID NOTHING'
Known as the queen of the lower castes for her power and lavish
lifestyle, the chief minister of the state, Mayawati, has been
criticised for building statues of herself and spending millions of
rupees on diamond jewellery.
But supporters say she drove out violent mafias and made the state
safe for former untouchable castes and other downtrodden groups after
decades of abuse.
Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people, is an unruly state that
stretches southeast from New Delhi, divided along its length by the
Ganges River. To avoid violence, voting is staggered over seven days.
Results from a total of five state elections are to be announced on
Elections in Uttar Pradesh have traditionally been decided by voters'
affiliation to the caste or religion they were born into. This year is
no exception, with parties promising government jobs for the mostly
poor Muslim and lower caste populations.
"Mayawati helped the poor with education, and distributed bicycles to
students," said 65-year-old wooden shoemaker Khairun Nisa, wearing a
black traditional Muslim head-to-toe cloak. "She didn't do as much as
we hoped, but she did something, other governments did nothing."
"We should give her one more chance," she said after casting her vote
on a rainy day at a primary school in Ayodhya. Turnout reached 59
percent by the close of voting, the state electoral commission said.
The destruction of a mosque by hardline Hindus at Ayodhya in 1992
sparked religious riots that killed some 2,000 people and brought the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national prominence.
This time, religious tensions have cooled and parties are trying to
woo voters with promises of welfare programmes, food subsidies and
affirmative action for government jobs.
Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party -- which enjoys a majority in the state
assembly -- is expected to take a battering as she loses the support
of higher castes who voted for her last time but feel she failed to
deliver economic development.
Both BJP and Congress are expected to pick up some of the votes she loses.
A scandal over funds for a health programme and linked to the murder
of four senior doctors has hurt Mayawati, and a purge of corrupt
officials this year was seen as coming too late.
Results are notoriously hard to predict in Uttar Pradesh -- where
millions live in distant villages without electricity or clean water
-- but several opinion polls suggest the Congress party could win
enough to form a government with the leftist Samajwadi Party, which
could emerge as the largest party.
The Samajwadi Party has a strong presence in the national parliament,
and a tie up could allow the Congress party to reduce the influence of
another volatile ally that has prevented Singh's government from
passing major economic reforms.
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Ron Popeski)
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