Five Indian states representing more than 160 million voters will go to the polls, a key test for the prime minister after his shock currency move. Photo: AFP

Millions of Indians will begin voting Saturday in regional elections seen as the first major test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party after his controversial move to ban all high-value notes last year.

Five Indian states will elect new governments over the next five weeks, with voting kicking off on Saturday in northern Punjab and Goa in the west. The biggest test for Modi will be in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won big in the 2014 general election.

“The BJP swept Uttar Pradesh with the largest chunk of MPs in 2014. A defeat here would signal that there has been erosion of support for Mr Modi,” said Nistula Hebbar, political editor with the Hindu newspaper.

The state is important because it sends the highest number of MPs to the upper house of parliament, where the BJP currently lacks a majority. Modi needs to gain more seats in the upper house, which has blocked reforms seen as crucial to fueling the economic growth promised to voters.

Modi’s bold move to ban the notes that made up 86% of the currency was aimed at curbing widespread tax evasion, but has also dented growth and caused pain to the millions of Indians who lack access to formal banking.

His party is likely to lose out in Punjab, which offers the best chance of a turnaround for the Congress Party.

Rahul Gandhi, the 44-year-old Nehru-Gandhi family scion who is seen as the party’s next head, has pulled out all the stops to revive its fortunes, facing criticism after a series of state election defeats.

The northern state of Uttarakhand and Manipur in the northeast will also elect new governments, with results for all five states due on March 11.

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