Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is on course to win a key victory in his home state, Gujarat, fending off a strong challenge from the opposition Congress party in a closely watched state election.
The BJP is also set to wrest control of a small state in northern India, Himachal Pradesh, from Congress.
The prime minister flashed a victory sign as he walked into parliament and celebrations erupted outside BJP offices in Gujarat and New Delhi as the results showed that the party would retain power in Gujarat, which it has ruled for 22 years.
According to the Election Commission, the BJP is leading in more than half the seats in the 182-member Gujarat assembly.
Although that figure is lower than its current numbers, the results are a relief for the party. There were worries that unpopular economic reforms, discontent among farmers and anger over a lack of jobs could hurt the BJP.
Analysts say the prime minister, who campaigned extensively in the state, helped take the BJP to victory in a tight contest regarded as the most crucial ahead of general elections in 2019. “There were many signs of people wanting change, but that sentiment has been stemmed by the Modi popularity, so his magic is still working,” said independent political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.
Much was at stake for Modi in the western state, which he ruled for more than a decade and that propelled him to the national stage after he won a reputation there as a strong leader who could deliver on promises of development.
As results indicated victory for his party, Modi tweeted, “I bow to the people of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh for their affection and trust in BJP. I assure them that we will leave no stone unturned in furthering the development journey of these states and serve the people tirelessly.”
The BJP’s reduced vote share in a state considered its bastion brings a warning ahead of the 2019 vote.
“They are still not out of the woods,” according to independent political analyst Ajoy Bose in New Delhi. “The voter is impatient. They are no longer satisfied with promises of the Gujarat model (of development); they want delivery on the ground and that is one of the reasons why the BJP did not win that big in a state where it is so strong.”
BJP leaders dismissed the lower tally, saying some loss of support was inevitable following a long spell in power.
The campaign was mostly fought on issues of development; but, it had become bitter in its later stages with Modi implying that Congress party leaders may be conniving with Pakistan to influence the poll. The allegations drew sharp counters from Congress, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The results also brought some comfort for Congress as it increased its tally from five years ago. Rahul Gandhi, long dismissed as lacking the political ability to take on Modi, led a spirited campaign in the state and stitched alliances with young leaders, helping it to make inroads in the BJP stronghold.
The campaign will help Congress as the party prepares for the 2019 general elections. “People were looking at him with new eyes,” said Chowdhury.
Monday’s victories are the latest in a string of triumphs for the BJP as a series of state elections held since its dramatic win in 2014 made it the first party in more than three decades to get a parliamentary majority.