The Uttar Pradesh Elections Are a Referendum on BJP Rule
The ruling party is expected to win, but its future is also on the ballot in India’s most populous state.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Uttar Pradesh’s state election wraps up in India, Pakistan cuts energy prices amid high inflation, and Nepal ratifies a $500 million U.S. infrastructure grant.
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India’s State Elections Enter Home Stretch
In India, elections in five states—home to more than 180 million eligible voters—are entering their final week. Polls opened on Feb. 10, with the first phase of voting in Uttar Pradesh. Two phases now remain: a second round in Manipur on March 5 and a seventh round in Uttar Pradesh on March 7. Diverse storylines accompany these elections, but all results are expected on March 10.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks to sweep all five states next week. It currently controls all but one, but the task still won’t be easy.
The BJP wants to maintain its dominance in Uttarakhand despite rumors of party infighting. In Goa, the outcome will be difficult to predict: Elections there are often tight. In Punjab, the only of the five states not governed by the BJP, the ruling alliance hopes to hold on to power, buoyed by public anger at New Delhi. And in Manipur, the Indian National Congress party seeks revenge after earning more seats than the BJP in the last election only to see it take power with a post-election alliance.
However, the election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, deserves especially close attention. Uttar Pradesh is the country’s biggest electoral prize, and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is seen as a potential successor to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But he will need to win reelection to convince the BJP brass he deserves that status. The BJP is expected to triumph in Uttar Pradesh. But governance struggles and unpopular policies mean victory likely won’t be as easy as in 2017, when it won 312 of the state’s 403 legislative seats.
Rising unemployment rates in Uttar Pradesh have led to violent protests in recent months, and opposition parties have made jobs a key pillar of their electoral platforms. Uttar Pradesh was also one of states hit hardest by India’s devastating COVID-19 surge in 2021. The main opposition alliance, comprising the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal party (RLD), will benefit from farmer constituencies in the western part of the state. Many Uttar Pradesh farmers bitterly opposed the unpopular agricultural laws passed by New Delhi last year, and the RLD closely allied itself with the large-scale protest movement against them.
The BJP faces another challenge from Chandrashekhar Azad, a politician representing the Dalit community, which historically has faced deep discrimination. In recent years, the BJP has won over Dalits with its social welfare programs. One of the most recent programs, launched during the pandemic, provides free wheat to poor Indians. But Azad has drawn enthusiastic crowds with his charismatic personality, adding to his already large following.
Meanwhile, the SP is expected to receive a large share of the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath, the chief minister, is a hard-line Hindu nationalist who has resorted to anti-Muslim hate speech. Some Muslim voters in the state have said they resent the BJP’s communal rhetoric, and opposition parties are campaigning on messages of interfaith unity.
The BJP can still overcome these challenges: Modi remains popular in the state, and his personal appearances on the campaign trail there could neutralize bad sentiment toward state BJP leaders.
Furthermore, Modi repealed the unpopular farm laws late last year, which blunts a powerful grievance held by opposition supporters. Milan Sharma, a reporter for India Today covering the Uttar Pradesh election, told me this week that the Muslim vote is likely to be split. India’s most prominent Muslim political leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, has campaigned actively for his own party in the state. That could take votes away from the SP, which Sharma said has campaigned less actively in Muslim communities.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), another opposition party that once ruled Uttar Pradesh until recently falling on hard times, is campaigning heavily and could also siphon additional votes from the SP-RLD bloc. Some observers have speculated that the BJP has tried to help the BSP in an effort to undermine the opposition alliance, possibly by urging some politicians to run as BSP candidates.
The BJP is predicted to win, but if it fails to win an outright majority, it faces awkward choices. Sharma, the reporter, said that if the BJP falls short of 240 seats, it may invite RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary into an alliance. The BJP invited Chaudhary to join the party in January, but he rebuffed the invitation. Other analysts have raised the possibility that Mayawati, an iconic Dalit leader and BSP head, could become chief minister if the BJP concludes that BSP support is essential for the formation of a BJP government.
The Uttar Pradesh election is in many ways a referendum on BJP rule: its handling of the economy and the pandemic, its use of divisive rhetoric, and its political future. And when it comes to Indian politics, what happens in Uttar Pradesh doesn’t stay there.
What We’re Following
Indian citizen killed in Ukraine. An Indian medical student was killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar, 21, was standing in line outside a grocery store at the time, according to Indian reports. The tragedy came as the Indian Embassy in Ukraine issued a warning instructing all Indian nationals to “leave Kyiv urgently today.” On Wednesday, the embassy released an even more urgent message instructing Indians to leave Kharkiv “immediately repeat immediately.”
India has so far declined to criticize the Russian invasion and abstained from U.N. resolutions condemning it, but it has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of Indians in Ukraine and emphasized that it is prioritizing their evacuations. New Delhi has ordered its air force to work with commercial airliners to help Indians residing in Ukraine, many of whom are medical students, leave the country.
On Wednesday, the Indian foreign ministry said about 17,000 of the 20,000 Indians in Ukraine had been evacuated.
Pakistani PM announces price cuts. On Monday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would reduce gas and electricity costs. The cuts are relatively modest, but they are significant in a poor country experiencing some of the worst inflation in the region. The move is risky, given that the International Monetary Fund is providing an aid package to Islamabad with the expectation that it will carry out austerity measures to stabilize the economy. Economists note that the move could worsen Pakistan’s debt problems.
Khan likely wanted to preemptively relieve common citizens before the consequences of global sanctions on Russia bring fresh economic misery for Pakistanis. But ultimately, the move was guided by political considerations. A divided political opposition has mobilized around the inflation issue and plans to stage anti-government protests. The opposition also plans to bring a no-confidence vote against Khan in Parliament in the coming days.
One year ago, after the Pakistani finance minister was defeated in a Senate election, Khan ordered a confidence vote, which he won and the opposition boycotted.
Infrastructure grant ratified in Nepal. Legislators in Nepal finally ratified a $500 million infrastructure grant funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. foreign aid agency, last Sunday. The measure had been stuck in Parliament since July 2019, and political leaders had sparred over it for nearly five years. Opponents feared the grant would undermine Nepal’s sovereignty and ensnare it in U.S.-China competition.
U.S. officials have described the MCC grant as a part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to counter Beijing, and it was finally ratified with a compromise that that clarifies that the grant doesn’t supersede Nepal’s constitution and that Kathmandu can terminate the grant if it violates national interests. Parliamentarians approved the grant one day before a deadline imposed by Washington.
The achievement delivers a big boost not only to Nepal’s infrastructure needs but also to the country’s prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba. He managed to get full buy-in from a fractious government coalition on a divisive issue—and he did so just seven months after he took office. One coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), had vowed to quit the coalition if the grant was ratified.
What We’re Reading
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on Feb. 27. It describes South Asia as a “global hotspot of high human vulnerability” and warns that it has “high confidence” that food security risks will increase between 2041 and 2100. This prediction is in line with previous warnings that climate change could have dramatic impacts on South Asian agriculture and livelihoods in the not-so-distant future.
Quote of the Week
“I can’t really afford to be stuck in another war.”
—Masouma Tajik, an Afghan refugee in Ukraine, on her reaction to war breaking out in her adopted country, in an interview with Foreign Policy
Under the Radar
Last Friday, while the world focused on Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department made a major announcement about funding for Afghanistan. It issued a new license that enables financial institutions, other private sector firms, and nongovernmental organizations to conduct limited commercial and financial transactions in Afghanistan—critically, without fear of running afoul of the U.S. sanctions regime on the Taliban.
According to a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the move “facilitates private companies and aid organizations working with Afghan governing institutions and paying customs, duties, fees, and taxes, including institutions that are headed by sanctioned individuals.”
The move delivers on earlier pledges by U.S. officials to make more financial transactions in Afghanistan exempt from sanctions. It also shows the Biden administration is committed to providing support that goes beyond humanitarian assistance through channeling more cash into the collapsing economy. The move couldn’t come at a more urgent time. The day the new license was announced, the director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross warned during a visit to Kabul that the “clock is ticking.”
In South Asian Voices, doctoral student Chirayu Thakkar discusses why India has abstained from U.N. resolutions criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He attributes India’s position to a “conflict between [a] principled belief in territorial integrity” and “immense strategic equities with Moscow.”
In the Kathmandu Post, academic Achyut Wagle accuses China of meddling in Nepal’s foreign-policy decision-making, and he lays some of the blame on India and the United States. They “are no less responsible for creating space for China,” he writes. “They often looked at Nepal through their strategic interests instead of institutionalizing democracy.”
Author Amrita Shah, writing in the Indian Express, criticizes the portrayal of Vikram Sarabhai, an Indian physicist who played a pioneering role in his country’s nuclear energy and space programs, in a new web series now streaming on SonyLIV. “Such a rewriting of history to diminish one of the nation’s great scientist-innovators cannot be taken lightly,” she writes.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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