India will hold five state elections in November and December, authorities said on Friday, kicking off a contest that is expected to boost the profile of Hindu nationalist opposition leader Narendra Modi ahead of a general election next year.
The polls, set to begin on November 11, are seen as a warm-up for the national elections, which will be the world's biggest democratic exercise. Both polls will test the popularity of Modi's promise of economic growth and clean governance at a time India is suffering its worst slowdown in a decade.
His party is trying to unseat the ruling Congress party, which has been weakened by a string of corruption scandals, high inflation and stuttering growth after nine years in power. However, it is counting on its record of support for the rural population, which makes up two-thirds of India's population.
Modi is now using elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram to build a presence among voters unfamiliar with his promises of efficient governance and probity. He has drawn large crowds across the country, and regularly polls as India's most popular politician.
In several states he has been campaigning against the Congress party's Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence from the British in 1947.
In the November polls, voters will choose members to sit in state assemblies. But there is a larger prize at stake: history suggests the results are likely to indicate the outcome of the general elections in those states, which together account for 73 of the 543 elected seats in the lower house of parliament.
Modi is a divisive figure. Critics see him as a dangerous right-wing autocrat they say failed to stop deadly religious riots in the state he governs, Gujarat, in 2002. But his growing fan base sees an incorruptible leader capable of turning the economy around and making India a global super power.
Modi denies any wrong during the riots that killed at least 1,000, mostly Muslim, people. A Supreme Court investigation failed to find evidence that he had fanned the violence.
Until now, Modi, who was popular enough to win three straight terms to govern Gujarat, has been untested outside his home turf.
"Dream team, not a dirty team"
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to retain control of two of the states being polled in November, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, both headed by popular BJP leaders contesting for a third term. It is also expected to snatch Rajasthan from Congress.
That would add to the momentum he built at crowded rallies up and down the country since he was annointed the party's candidate for prime minister on September 13.
The outcome of state elections in India usually hinge on local leaders and issues, but analysts say Modi will try to capitalise on any victories for momentum in the run-up to next year's national poll.
In New Delhi last Sunday, thousands of supporters were bussed to a BJP rally along roads draped with campaign posters of Modi. The mostly male crowd, some wearing masks of Modi's face, applauded enthusiastically as he lambasted the leaders of the Congress party, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"In 2014, India needs a dream team, not a dirty team," said Modi, promising not to break the trust of his supporters, who cheered lustily in response. He finished his speech by punching his hands in the air, chanting "Vande Mataram", a salute to the motherland, which the crowd repeated.