Five Indian states representing more than 160 million voters will go to the polls in the next two months, the election commission said on Wednesday, in a key test for the prime minister after his shock move to ban all high-value notes.
They include India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, where Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to claw back power after performing well in national elections in 2014.
The elections will begin on February 4th, nearly three months after Modi announced he was scrapping nearly 86 percent of all Indian currency, a move aimed at curbing widespread tax evasion.
The northern states of Punjab and Uttarakhand, Goa in the west and Manipur in the northeast will also elect new governments in the elections, which go on until March 8th, with results due three days later.
“All five states will go to election in one go,” Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi told reporters in New Delhi. “The commission and government machinery are in full readiness to conduct the elections in a free, fair and transparent manner.”
Modi’s BJP needs to win state elections to gain more seats in the nation’s upper house of parliament, which has blocked reforms seen as crucial to fuelling the economic growth it has promised voters.
Most members of the upper house are indirectly elected by state legislatures.
Modi’s BJP currently rules in Goa and Punjab while the opposition Congress is in power in Manipur and Uttarakhand. The party held power until 2002 in Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) has been roiled by a power struggle in recent weeks that could weaken its grip on power. The vote there is being seen as the first major test of Modi after his assault on tax evasion.
Initial praise for the Indian leader’s bold move has given way to criticism over the slow pace of rolling out new currency, which is widely expected to hit economic growth, although popular support remains high. Voting in Uttar Pradesh will begin on February 11th and take place in seven stages.
The announcement follows a Supreme Court ruling this week banning politicians from using religion and caste to win votes.
India is officially secular but politicians from parties including the BJP and SP have been accused of exploiting religion and caste to garner votes.