In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party is set to retain power in the country’s most politically influential state, Uttar Pradesh, putting the Hindu nationalist party in a strong position ahead of 2024 general elections and cementing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s position as India’s most powerful leader in decades.
The BJP’s impressive performance in regional elections came despite concerns that a sputtering economy, high unemployment, a farmers’ protest and widespread complaints of mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic would hurt its chances in the voting that was held in five states. The nearly month-long process ended March 7.
The party was also ahead of its rivals in three other areas -- the northern state of Uttarakhand, the northeastern state of Manipur and the western state of Goa.
“This gives the BJP a big advantage in terms of controlling the political agenda and narrative going ahead,” said Rahul Verma at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “The BJP was having trouble winning state elections since 2014 when it came to power. Now, winning four states will consolidate Modi’s popularity.”
Separately, an already weakened opposition Congress Party was further decimated, losing the only state where it was in power in this round of voting.
But it is the BJP’s performance in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest political prize in India, that is drawing attention – it will mark the first time in more than three decades that an incumbent party is on course to return to power in the state. The BJP had swept the state five years ago, and although it is losing some seats, it is on course to a convincing victory.
India’s most populous state, which sends the most lawmakers to parliament, is governed by a Hindu monk-turned-politician, Yogi Adityanath, whose term has been marked by what critics say are anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric. Adityanath, who always appears in public clad in saffron robes -- the hallmark of a Hindu priest -- has passed strict laws banning slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider holy, and passed a law that makes interfaith marriage harder.
Adityanath’s victory over the regional Samajwadi Party, which put up a spirited fight, will consolidate his position as one of the BJP’s front-line leaders and be seen as an endorsement of his Hindu first policies.
“It is very much possible that the BJP now doubles down on their Hindu first agenda but that cannot alone bring them to power. So, to win elections, the focus is also strongly on welfare benefits for disadvantaged sections, plus of course the leadership of Modi,” says Verma.
Along with Adityanath, Modi had campaigned extensively in the state, wooing voters with policies such as free rations for the poor during the pandemic, a crackdown on crime and its development policies.
Political analysts say opposition parties were not able to capitalize on disenchantment with the BJP because of the party's ability to mobilize the strong base it has built in the state in recent years and its core appeal to many Hindus. They are voters like Bablu Tyagi, a young farmer from Didoli village.
“We have made sweets to distribute to everyone,” said an ecstatic Tyagi, as the results poured in. “I am really happy. My religion is very important to me but of course I also want development.”
For India’s main opposition Congress Party, the results brought more evidence of its decline as a national force as it was ousted from the northern Punjab state by a regional party.
The political fortunes of the once-powerful party that ruled India for nearly six decades have plummeted since 2014 and many questions have been raised over the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, who has been unable to emerge as a credible alternative to Modi.
Besides the BJP, one other party had reason to celebrate – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is winning Punjab with a massive majority. The regional party, which is a relative newcomer to Indian politics, has been in power in Delhi for two consecutive terms, but it has national ambitions and is trying to widen its footprint in other states. Its victory in Punjab is seen as the first step in that direction.
Upbeat party leaders said they were now ready to take on Modi nationally.
“I see AAP becoming a national force. AAP is going to be the national and natural replacement of the Congress,” party spokesman Raghav Chadha told the NDTV television channel.
Some regional parties, which have a strong presence in several states, are exploring the possibility of coming together to fight the BJP at a national level in 2024. But the Hindu nationalist party’s strong performance in this round of regional voting shows that the task will be a challenge, especially as the Congress Party has been further weakened.
“The national opposition is getting further marginalized so in the short run there is going to be a big gap between the BJP and any other party that is going to compete for the second slot,” points out Verma.