* Northern state of Uttar Pradesh goes to polls
* PM Modi's party swept state in 2014 general election
* First big election test since Modi's cash crackdown
* Young state leader teams up with Congress, may hold on
* Biggest election in the world this year
By Rupam Jain and Tom Lasseter
LUCKNOW, India, Feb 11 Indian Prime Minister
Narendra Modi faces his biggest electoral test since coming to
power when the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, which he
swept three years ago, holds an election starting on Saturday.
In the biggest democratic exercise on the planet this year,
voting will take place in seven stages over a month to elect a
new assembly to govern the mostly poor state of nearly 220
million people that lies along the river Ganges.
More broadly, voters will deliver a mid-term verdict on Modi
and his nationalist party as India recovers from his boldest
decision yet: to abolish 86 percent of the cash in circulation.
The banknote ban, launched by Modi three months ago to purge
the economy of untaxed income and proceeds of crime and
corruption, has disrupted daily life and commerce, and caused
the economy to slow.
On the campaign trail, Modi has said he had the interests of
the poor at heart in making the move - the biggest gamble of his
prime ministership. A strong showing at the polls would
strengthen his chances of a second term in 2019.
"The results will tell us whether Modi continues to enjoy
unquestioned support or if it has started to erode," said R.K.
Mishra, an independent political analyst based in the state
GODZILLA OF STATES
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) polled 42 percent of the
vote in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general election, sweeping 71
out of 80 seats on its way to claiming India's biggest national
mandate in three decades.
Yet voters have shown growing impatience that Modi's
campaign promises of development and "better days" to come have
failed to deliver new jobs to a state where per capita incomes
average less than $750 a year and many communities lack access
to power, clean water and basic medical services.
"It is the Godzilla of states," said BJP national spokesman
Nalin Kohli, as he looked out over the darkened streets of
Lucknow on a recent evening.
People tend to vote along traditional caste and religious
lines, and successive governments have exploited communal
divisions to fire up their base and poach voters from opponents.
"The situation gets very bad here sometimes - there is
fighting between groups, between Hindus and Muslims," said
Bhagwati Prasad, who sells materials for Hindu cremation
ceremonies outside a temple in Lucknow.
"I am a Hindu. If there is a Hindu-Muslim fight I have to
stand with the Hindus."
The complexity of such "vote-bank" politics makes it hard to
predict outcomes in India's first-past-the-post electoral
system. Any party polling significantly over 30 percent of the
vote can win by a landslide.
Pollsters say it will be tough for the BJP to repeat its
general election performance.
In not fielding its own candidate for the post of chief
minister it also risks repeating a tactical blunder that
contributed to a heavy defeat in Bihar, another Hindi-speaking
heartland state, in 2015.
The Samajwadi Party, which rules in the state, is led by
43-year-old Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The party won a
majority in the last state assembly election, in 2012, with just
29 percent of the vote.
Yadav has formed an alliance with Rahul Gandhi of the
Congress party that, polls show, will be tough to beat.
In the third corner of the contest is Mayawati, who ran the
state from 2007 to 2012 and whose Bahujan Samaj Party draws its
support from communities on the bottom rung of India's ancient
She has fielded a big crop of candidates from the Muslim
minority that makes up 19 percent of the state's electorate.
Polls show most Muslims siding with the ruling Samajwadi
Party-Congress alliance, however.
The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a
Delhi-based polling group, projects Samajwadi-Congress to win 35
percent, followed by the BJP on 29 percent and the BSP on 23
percent. Other polls put the BJP ahead.
Results from Uttar Pradesh, along with elections in the
states of Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur, are due on March
(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Robert