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Regional Polls in India Boost Ruling BJP

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate their party's win in state assembly elections in Gauhati, Assam state, India, May 19, 2016. India's ruling Hindu nationalist party made dramatic gains in elections in the eastern state.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gotten a much-needed boost in regional elections, wrestling control of the northeastern state of Assam and expanding its influence beyond its traditional strongholds.

And two years after being routed in national elections, polls held in five states have dealt yet another blow to the main opposition Congress Party.

The BJP declared victory in Assam early Thursday as vote counting showed the party surging ahead of the Congress Party, which ruled the state for 15 years. The news came after two humiliating losses in Delhi and Bihar last year raised questions about loss of momentum for the Hindu nationalist party, which swept national elections in 2014.

On Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Assam win "exceptional" and "historic." It is the first time that the BJP will be in power in Assam.

Final tallies will be declared after counting is completed.

Surging in all states

A smiling BJP minister, Prakash Javadekar, said the party is surging in votes and seats in all states and attributed the gains to the national government’s performance. “Fortunately, last two years, many promises have been fulfilled. We walked the talk,” Javadekar told reporters.

The win in Assam, an underdeveloped state rife with ethnic and religious tension, is also significant because it shows the Hindu nationalist party making a mark in an area outside the north and west from where much of its support flows.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a youth rally organized by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) ahead of Assam state elections in Gauhati, India, Jan. 19, 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a youth rally organized by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) ahead of Assam state elections in Gauhati, India, Jan. 19, 2016.

“So the victory in Assam gives them an opportunity to then establish themselves in the northeast, where there are six other states,” says Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

However, Joshi points out that although the BJP scored a win against a “weakened Congress” in Assam, it failed to gain a foothold in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, or make a significant mark in West Bengal, which are controlled by powerful regional parties.

In fact, the elections demonstrated the continuing influence of these parties and the sway that charismatic local leaders command in several key states. The fiery leader of the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, retained control of West Bengal, and another woman leader, J. Jayalalithaa, held on to power in Tamil Nadu.

The results were a huge blow for the Congress Party which ruled India for over 60 years and was once the country’s dominant political party. Besides losing Assam, the party also lost the southern state of Kerala, where a coalition of left-wing parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was ahead. Those were crucial losses for a party that is now not a significant player in most of the country’s 29 states.

A Congress Party spokesperson, P.C. Chacko, dismissed the party’s dismal showing, saying, “We have bounced back many times after humiliating defeats. It was the anti-incumbency factor which affected us very strongly.”

Political analysts said the results could help the BJP fend off pressure from the Congress Party, which has blocked key reforms in the upper house of parliament, and woo regional parties to pass key legislation.

“Now the issue is, can the BJP use the weakening of the Congress to reach out to non-Congress parties and get their support?” asked Joshi.