NEW DELHI, India -- Sonia Gandhi's leadership of the Congress Party -- which long ruled India but is now a shadow of its former self -- faced its most crucial test yesterday as voting in India's gargantuan monthlong national election moved to the Hindi heartland.
The biggest prize is Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state with a population of 160 million. Once a bastion of Congress power, it sent three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family to serve as members of Parliament and as prime ministers. But the party did not win a single seat there in national elections last year.
Gandhi is now running for the old seat of her assassinated husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in Uttar Pradesh, where she needs to prove that she can rebuild an atrophied party organization.
Surveys of voters leaving polls have found that the Congress Party is badly trailing the ruling Hindu nationalist-led coalition after the first two phases of voting earlier this month.
A poll taken before yesterday's voting indicated that Congress may make a tentative comeback in Uttar Pradesh, whose 85 parliamentary seats make up about one-sixth of the total.
Uttar Pradesh, widely considered one of India's worst-governed states, is currently headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which may face an anti-incumbency backlash from voters.
"If Congress wins even six to 10 seats, it would mean it's beginning to rebuild its base," said a political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan. "In the long run, if they're going to draw a blank in the most populous state in the country, then their prospects are very bleak."
But Congress may well lose ground in other states. Voting also began yesterday in Bihar, one of India's poorest states, where Congress has allied itself with a colorful politician, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who faces serious corruption charges.
There was scattered poll-related violence yesterday, with the worst bloodshed taking place in Bihar, where leftist militants involved in an agrarian conflict called for a boycott of the vote. More than 20 police officers, poll workers and other officials were killed in attacks that the police blamed on guerrillas.
The national election, India's third in three years, concludes on Oct. 3.