Polls kick off in northern Uttar Pradesh which has a larger population than Brazil and in national elections sends more lawmakers to parliament than any other state.
Polls have opened in India's most populous state in a test of the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda in the face of a surge in hate crimes against minority Muslims, trenchant unemployment, rising inflation and the coronavirus pandemic.
Uttar Pradesh has struggled through India's economic downturn, and Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is keen to prove it still holds sway in the bellwether state, home to more than 200 million people.
A strong victory in the northern Hindi-speaking heartland will give the BJP a boost ahead of national elections in 2024, when it will seek a third straight victory under Modi.
Opinion polls have indicated that the BJP will retain power in the 403-member Uttar Pradesh assembly –– something no party has done since 1985 –– with an increased vote share.
Weekslong balloting in state elections will also take place in the states of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.
Stoking religious divisions
The battleground Uttar Pradesh has a larger population than Brazil and in national elections sends more lawmakers to parliament than any other state, accounting for 80 of the 543 seats in the lower house.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is led by firebrand Hindu monk and incumbent chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whose sharp tongue has won him fans and critics alike.
Adityanath, 49, has been accused of stoking religious divisions to woo Hindu voters, who make up 80 percent of the state electorate.
The saffron-robed ascetic has been outspoken in his Hindu nationalist rhetoric during campaigning for the staggered seven-phase polls, riling the state's minority Muslim population.
The BJP's main rival is the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party, led by Akhilesh Yadav who has been seeking to tap into discontent over job losses and rising prices since the first wave of the pandemic hit the country in 2020.
Keen to make up lost ground, the BJP has promised a job for at least one member of each family and free electricity for farmers –– a key voting bloc –– if it retains power.
The first phase of polling on Thursday will see more than 22 million voters cast their ballots for 58 assembly seats.
Counting will take place on March 10 after all seven voting phases.