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India Regional Polls to Test Ruling BJP's Popularity

  • Anjana Pasricha

Indian voters pose for a photograph with their identity cards as they queue to cast their ballots in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215 kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

Indian voters pose for a photograph with their identity cards as they queue to cast their ballots in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215 kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

In India, millions of voters are headed to the polls in the states of Assam and West Bengal to choose new governments — the first in a series of regional elections to be held over the next six weeks. The elections will test the popularity of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which suffered humiliating electoral losses last year.

Out of the two states where polling began Monday, the most crucial for the BJP is the northeastern state of Assam, where it hopes to wrest power from the opposition Congress Party.

In this remote tea-growing region, which has been troubled by ethnic conflicts, the BJP has promised to support the rights of local tribes-people and oppose illegal migration.

Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at New Delhi’s Center for Developing Societies, said a win in Assam will be a huge morale booster for the party.

“The stakes for BJP is very high. In Assam they would definitely want a victory,” he said. “We have to think in terms of backdrop of these elections. The last two Assembly [state] elections, the BJP has been badly defeated in Delhi and Bihar.”

An Indian voter holds a child as she casts her ballot in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

An Indian voter holds a child as she casts her ballot in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

Although the BJP has always been a marginal political force in West Bengal, which is controlled by a regional party, here too it has mounted an all-out effort to win some seats as part of a strategy to expand its presence beyond its traditional strongholds.

The polling in Assam and West Bengal will be spread over several days. Security was especially tight in West Bengal, where Maoist rebels in the impoverished countryside have long been battling government rule.

In the coming weeks, the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry will also choose new state governments. The results of all the elections will be announced on May 19.

High stakes

The string of state elections will influence Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to usher in key economic reforms, which have been stalled by opposition parties who control the upper house of parliament.

Political analysts say these parties have become more aggressive in the wake of the BJP’s electoral losses last year, and the ruling party wants to score victories in the states to secure a majority in the upper house and push back the opposition.

Indian voters queue to cast their ballots in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

Indian voters queue to cast their ballots in the state assembly elections at a polling station in Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district some 215kms from Guwahati on April 4, 2016.

Credibility gap

Modi’s spectacular victory in national elections in 2014 on a plank of development and economic growth had made the BJP optimistic about rapidly expanding its presence in the country.

But New Delhi based independent political analyst, Ajoy Bose, said Modi’s “electoral juggernaut” has slowed down in the last two years.

“There is a certain disenchantment I am sure, because the kind of promise he came with, I think there is a big credibility gap, the delivery has not been certainly adequate, so that way he slid back, he cannot in any way steamroller his party to power in state elections,” said Bose.

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