NEW DELHI —
Regional elections held Wednesday in two states will test the popularity of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a good performance could strengthen his government and give him more elbow room to initiate tough economic reforms.
Modi wants to unseat Congress Party-led governments in Maharashtra and Haryana states and repeat the impressive performance that catapulted his Bharatiya Janata Party to power in national elections in May.
Both states are politically crucial. Maharashtra is a large state that is home to India’s financial hub, Mumbai. Haryana is relatively small but one of the country’s fastest-developing states adjoining the capital. But the BJP has never been a major force in either.
Modi personally led his party’s campaign in both states. At dozens of rallies, he appealed to voters on the same plank that won him national support -- development and good governance.
Hoping to win on the backs of young voters, his strongest constituency, Modi tweeted as polls opened, “Youngsters must show the way and ensure record turnout.”
Political analyst Satish Misra at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi said a good showing by the BJP would be a vote of confidence in the prime minister. He pointed out that these will be the first state elections held since the national polls last May.
“If the BJP under Modi has to establish to people at large that it is the most popular party, then the BJP must emerge the winner of these two elections, if not with clear majority, then at least with credible enough numbers to be single largest party,” Misra said. “For the first time, Modi’s credibility and popularity and credibility is at stake. Modi is the BJP's face. Modi is the BJP's vote-catcher.”
Opinion polls show that BJP could win in both states, although it might fall short of a majority.
Confidence is still high in Modi, but several analysts said some of the magic that helped him romp to power has begun to wane as people impatiently wait for him to fulfill his promise that “better days are here.”
For that promise to be bear fruit, Modi must implement tough reforms needed to rev up India’s slowing economy. Analysts said victories in the state elections could embolden the prime minister to take some of those difficult steps, such as labor reforms.
Modi’s BJP became the first party in 30 years to secure an absolute majority in national elections, raising hopes that a stable government led by a strong leader will give momentum to economic development.