By Nidhi Verma and Nigam Prusty
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a key battleground for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition groups, will hold elections in seven phases starting from Feb. 10, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said on Saturday.
The outcome of the election in the northern state, currently ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will be seen a barometer for national elections due in 2024.
Voting will be finalised on March 7, with results expected from March 10, the Commission said.
It has announced polling dates for five states at a time when the country is facing a soaring number of coronavirus infections.
Punjab, ruled by rival Congress Party, the BJP-led Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and tourist and mining hotspot Goa in the West will hold elections on Feb. 14, the Commission said. The northeastern state of Manipur, also ruled by the BJP, will have elections in two phases on Feb. 27 and March 3.
Chandra said the political parties were barred from holding election rallies and roadshows until Jan. 15 in view of the rising number of COVID cases.
“(The) Commission shall subsequently review the situation and issue further instructions accordingly,” he said, urging the parties to use online channels for campaigning instead.
India on Saturday reported 141,986 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily number since the end of May, and 285 new deaths. Recorded case numbers have reached 35 million since the beginning of the pandemic.
Last year, Modi’s government had faced severe criticism for his handling of the pandemic during a second wave that overran healthcare systems across the country.
Government officials have privately said daily cases in the country’s third wave of infections could surpass the record of more than 414,000 hit last May, due to the fast spread of the Omicron variant.
India has embarked on a massive vaccination drive for those aged 15 and above. However, millions are vulnerable to new infections, particularly in the vast hinterlands of states such as Uttar Pradesh where healthcare is inadequate.
(Reporting by Nidhi Verma and Nigam Prusty; editing by Clelia Oziel)