|Mayawati's BSP may not win an outright majority in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but 'smokey back room negotiations' are expected once votes are counted [AFP]
New Delhi, India - India has begun elections in five states, but the results of key polls in India's populous state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) hold the key to the country's immediate political future.
To understand why UP is the crucible of Indian politics and a crucial bellwether state, consider this:
With 200 million people, UP has a population equivalent to Brazil. The number of people eligible to vote is more than 100 million, which is more than the combined population of 174 countries.
Spread over seven phases and one month, the election, beginning on February 8, is itself a mammoth exercise.
At stake are 403 assembly seats. But UP also sends 85 MPs to the lower house of India's parliament, the highest among any state. The state has also provided India with eight prime ministers.
Ironically, UP is also one of India's most unstable states - both politically and economically.
Since the nation's independence in 1947, it has had more than 40 chief ministers, which means that all but three chief ministers completed their full term. Society - and politics - is severely fractured along primordial caste lines. Many argue that it is one of the few states which continues to live in the past.
UP is also one of the few Indian states where the leading main national parties - the Congress and the Hindu nationalist BJP - have been decisively marginalised by a clutch of powerful regional parties including the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), who appeal to Dalits lower caste groups. The former is led by Mayawati, a powerful and brassy woman - and a Dalit icon - while the latter is the fief of an ageing former wrestler and a veteran practitioner of caste-based politics, Mulayum Singh Yadav.
Belying its potential to become an economic powerhouse, UP has become India's basket case. The number of poor is higher than the Indian average, and personal incomes and literacy are much lower. Healthcare is shambolic: last year, more than 500 children died of encephalitis in one district alone.
And that's not all. Corruption is all pervasive, and all political parties are complicit.
Aiding this is the rise of the criminalisation of politics. During the 2007 state elections, a third of candidates put up by the eventual winner, BSP - which professes to be the party of the poorest of the poor - had pending criminal cases. Things haven't changed much this year: nearly 80 of the more than 600 candidates so far announced by the four main parties have criminal records.
The February election is being billed as a battle between Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi, Congress party leader, heir-apparent to the prime minister's chair and scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family.
Appealing to the lower castes
To be sure, Mayawati has completed a rare five-year-term. Her record, say analysts, is mixed - the state clocked a brisk seven per cent plus growth rate annually under her rule, led by state investment in infrastructure. But soaring corruption at a time when India is witnessing a popular civil society uprising against graft may have neutralised many of the gains.
For Rahul Gandhi, however, it is a do-or-die election.
The last time his party even came close to 100 seats in UP was some 20 years ago. Since then, the party, traditionally supported by the upper castes, has steadily lost the allegiance of the lower classes and Muslims - the latter comprise 18 per cent of UP's population. The demolition of the Babri mosque by a radical Hindu mob in 1992, when the Congress party ruled India alienated Muslims in particular.
Rahul is touring the length and breadth of the state, trying to whip up support and ensure that the Congress party manages to double - or even triple - its paltry tally of 22 seats in the assembly.
A vastly improved performance will bolster Rahul's prospects of taking over the party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, and possibly the prime minister's seat - if Congress manages to win the 2014 general elections. Anything less will be regarded as a personal setback for Rahul.
"The election is significant for national politics," agrees political commentator Arati Jerath. "After a long time, the state, which used to once set the national agenda [until] it was taken over by the regional parties, is set to regain its pre-eminent position."
A desperate Congress appears to have pulled out all the stops to woo lost voters. To impress Muslims, it has announced a small (4.5 per cent) reservation for minorities in the government jobs and education places. It has also rolled out a cheap food scheme for the poor. Many have been critical of Congress reportedly abandoning the politics of aspiration and returning to the retrograde politics of identity and caste to attract voters. "This election is a throwback to the 1990s. It's as if nothing has changed at all in the state," says analyst Ashok Malik.
If early - and possibly premature - opinion polls are to believed, UP is headed for a hung assembly, with Yadav's opposition Samajwadi Party emerging as the single largest with the slightest of leads over Mayawati's BSP. Congress is expected at least double its tally.
Rahul believes this can help his party cobble together a coalition with Samajwadi Party, and raise the morale of Congress - bruised and battered by charges of corruption, a slowing economy and an overall stasis in governance.
"Believe me", Rahul implored voters at a recent public meeting. "We will deliver modern and better governance."
There is no doubt that UP needs that as desperately as Rahul and his rivals need the votes. Under the watchful eyes of India's stern election authorities, the rhetoric and campaigning appears to be unexpectedly subdued. But expect the fireworks - the smokey backroom negotiations and horse-trading - to begin as soon as the ballots are counted.
Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.