In a staggered series of local votes, Uttar Pradesh is going to the polls. Early reports from the Times of India suggest perhaps 120 million people participated in the first phase of the regional elections here in India’s most populous state, the highest participation rate in UP since India’s independence.
UP’s regional elections will reverberate across the nation. The Congress Party, which rules the national government in Delhi, has not participated in UP’s state government for 22 years. In 2009, during general elections, it won a fairly impressive 18 percent of the vote in UP, a feat it hopes to repeat this year. A similar result in these elections would significantly bolster Congress’s legislative power in Delhi. Largely as a result of its weakness in UP, the Congress Party is forced to run the national government as part of a coalition instead of outright.
Congress’s most active campaigner in UP has been 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi, son of the redoubtable Sonia Gandhi and heir to both India’s most beloved family dynasty and the Congress Party. Charismatic, energetic, more comfortable with poor and rural Indians than suave politicians, Mr. Gandhi, whose father and grandmother were both assassinated while serving as prime minister, is not talking much about his ambitions in national politics. He turned down an offer of a cabinet post from the prime minister, Manmoahan Singh, two years ago. Speaking in third person, Mr. Gandhi recently announced to the press “Rahul Gandhi’s obsession is not to be PM. Rahul Gandhi’s obsession is to work for the people.” Yet there have been more than a few calls for the young Mr. Gandhi to take a high-profile job in the national government, perhaps even the prime ministership.
Many, not least himself, consider Mr. Gandhi to be unprepared for a top job. In a recent nationwide poll, 17 percent of respondents supported Mr. Gandhi to be the next prime minister, compared with 24 percent for Narendra Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist.
Yet there is no doubting his popularity, nor the push to bring Mr. Gandhi into the spotlight. His recent rallies on the campaign trail in UP, sometimes four or five a day, have hosted tens of thousands of supporters. In November, Congress’s general secretary, Digvijay Singh, called Mr. Gandhi a “national leader,” saying now is the time for him to take on bigger tasks. With his mother, the president of the Congress Party, quite sick, and the average age of the five most important ministers in the party near 74 years, party leaders are looking expectantly at Mr. Gandhi. The desire to build a legend around the young and unprepossessing Mr. Gandhi is strong. Much rides on the state elections in UP. When votes are counted on March 6, if Mr. Gandhi performs strongly, the push for him to take on the prime ministership will only increase.