x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UP elections test India's political will

India's politics, steeped in corruption scandals and allegations of nepotism, today will face a crucial reality check. Voters in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state with 200 million people - half of whom are eligible voters - will begin to cast ballots in the first phase of state assembly elections.

These are state elections first, and the future and cohesion of Uttar Pradesh are on the line. But there are also ramifications for national politics. The ruling Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi, the party's golden boy and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, have put their political credibility on the line by campaigning hard in the state.

There is a real question whether substance will triumph over style. Mr Gandhi is sometimes accused of having more good intentions than political capability, and he has pitted himself against the incumbent chief minister Mayawati, who leads the state's dominant Bahujan Samaj Party. A champion of the so-called lower castes, Ms Mayawati is also fairly criticised for her flamboyant style and profligate spending of public funds on self-promotion.

Corruption ranks at the top of India's challenges, but there is a real question whether either of these standard-bearers should be leading the charge. Ms Mayawati is dogged by spending scandals (having allegedly once sent a private jet to fetch a pair of favourite sandals). And no party is more in the spotlight than Congress. Last year's hunger strikes by the activist Anna Hazare brought attention to the dirty dealings on every side of Indian politics, but it was on Congress's watch that the proposed anti-corruption bill failed - admittedly, because of the objections of the opposition BJP.

Congress may be a scapegoat for India's endemic weaknesses, but for a party that has ruled India for all but one decade since independence, there must be some responsibility. Uttar Pradesh is an interesting test case in more ways than one: eight of India's prime ministers have hailed from the state, but it remains one of India's poorest. Illiteracy is high and per capita income rock bottom. Ms Mayawati blames the relatively low growth rate - 7 per cent - on New Delhi.

Whether Mr Gandhi and Congress can prevail against the political phenomenon of Ms Mayawati will shape national elections in 2014. Whether India's politics can produce true leaders will shape the nation.