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After currency chaos, India's polls to test Modi's popularity

A security officer checks voters’ identity cards outside a polling station at Jagdev Kalan village on Saturday in India.
A security officer checks voters’ identity cards outside a polling station at Jagdev Kalan village on Saturday in India.
Published Feb. 5, 2017

NEW DELHI — Nearly three years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a sweeping national election victory with promises to develop the economy and root out corruption. But with a series of key state elections beginning Saturday, Modi's popularity — and his surprise currency decree that sparked months of financial uproar — is now being tested.

India is just emerging from the fallout of a November decision that withdrew India's two largest currency notes from circulation and caused weeks of chaos as people waited to get their money back in new bills.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party hailed the move as a way to curb tax fraud and corruption and push India toward more digital spending. Opponents say it was a self-inflicted blow on the world's fastest-growing economy, causing enormous hardship for the vast majority of Indians, who often rely completely on cash.

While the five state elections will not decide whether Modi remains in office, a loss would be seen as a serious blow to his political image. Most important is the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, whose immense population of 204 million means state elections often help shape the national political agenda.

"In these elections, Uttar Pradesh is the real biggie," said Ajoy Bose, a political analyst in New Delhi.

"If the BJP were to lose in Uttar Pradesh, it would be a huge setback, both for the party and for Modi. It would destroy the myth of Modi, who has been projected as this political juggernaut of invincible proportions," Bose said.

Elections were held Saturday in the northern state of Punjab and the beach resort state of Goa. Hundreds of paramilitary troops and police were posted near voting stations across Punjab to ensure security as voters stood in long lines to cast their ballots. As of 5 p.m., when voting was scheduled to end in Punjab, around 66 percent of the state's eligible voters had cast ballots, officials said, adding that those still waiting in line would be allowed to vote.

In Goa, more than 83 percent voters had cast their vote when polling ended Saturday.

In the next phase of the election, the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand votes on Feb. 15, and remote northeastern Manipur votes on March 4 and 8.

Elections in Uttar Pradesh begin Saturday, but voting is divided into seven phases. Results from all the elections will be declared on March 11.