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Five Indian states go to polls in test for Modi

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Five Indian states representing more than 160 million voters will go to the polls in the next two months, officials said Wednesday, a key test for the prime minister after his shock currency move.

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 4, 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 8, with results due three days later.

“All five states will go to election in one go,” Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi told reporters.

“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.

His party currently rules in Goa and Punjab while the opposition Congress is in power in Manipur and Uttarakhand.

The BJP held power until 2002 in Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Samajwadi Party has been roiled by a power struggle in recent weeks that some believe could weaken its grip on power.

Voting in Uttar Pradesh will begin on February 11 and take place in seven stages, and 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 his popular support remains high.

The voting also follows a Supreme Court ruling this week that politicians cannot use caste or religion to win votes.

India is officially secular but most politicians, including from BJP have been accused of exploiting religious and caste sentiments to garner votes.

The Election Commission said it would closely monitor that ruling, and also announced new rules designed to make campaign spending more transparent.

Parties will only be allowed to use cash for campaign-related payments worth less than 20,000 rupees ($290), while candidates will have to take an oath that they have no unpaid public utility bills.


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