The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Narendra Modi’s BJP wins key Indian state elections

Supporters of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate outside the party office in Lucknow on March 10, 2022, as votes are counted in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI — India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, won key state elections Thursday that strengthen its position in national politics and offer a ringing endorsement of Modi’s vision of guiding India away from its secular founding principles.

In the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won a majority of the 403 seats, according to the Election Commission of India. The northern state is the country’s most populous and is considered a political bellwether. It sends more legislators to Parliament than any other state and was key to Modi’s victories in previous national elections.

With its historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP showed its popular support overcame criticism of its stewardship of the economy, which has stalled amid soaring unemployment and inflation, and of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, which devastated the state. The party also swept back into power in the states of Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand. These results make Modi’s BJP the favorite to win the next national election, in 2024.

The results from Uttar Pradesh indicate a “triumph” for the BJP, said Nalin Mehta, author of “The New BJP,” a recent book on the party and Modi. The party’s model of welfare — direct benefits transfers and provisions of free food grains to people during the pandemic — helped it “overcome the stresses of anti-incumbency and deep economic deprivation along with an unapologetic positioning of Hindu-ness,” Mehta said. “The broad social coalition across caste and class that powered BJP’s victories since 2014 has not only remained intact, but deepened its roots.”

Modi arrived at the party’s New Delhi office Thursday night to a rousing reception. He was showered with rose petals as party workers shouted, “Long live Modi!”

“Today is a day of celebration for Indian democracy,” Modi said. “The results vindicate the BJP’s pro-poor and proactive governance.”

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In the agrarian state of Punjab in northern India, a regional party known as the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, or AAP, won handsomely over the incumbent Indian National Congress. With its victory in Punjab, the AAP, which controls the Delhi capital region, became the first regional party in decades to capture power in more than one state.

The AAP’s growing reach — and the dismal performance of the Congress party — casts doubt on the future of one of India’s most storied political parties and throws into question the Congress party’s status as the BJP’s main opponent at the national level.

Raghav Chadha, a leader of the AAP, told New Delhi Television that his party will be the “national and natural replacement” of the Congress party.

The bitterly fought state elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, have been held in staggered phases over more than a month. They were billed as a battle for India’s future, in which voter preferences would either burnish the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda or challenge what critics call the country’s tilt toward illiberal democracy.

A recent report by the Swedish V-Dem Institute, which maps the state of democracies in the world, said India was among the top 10 countries sliding into authoritarianism, a group that V-Dem says includes Brazil and Hungary. The U.S.-based nonprofit Freedom House, which assesses political rights and civil liberties globally, listed India as “partly free” for a second consecutive year in 2022, noting its decline in civil liberties.

But the BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh, experts say, again reinforces the dominance of the 71-year-old Modi in the country of more than 1.3 billion people for the foreseeable future. Modi in recent years has grown a long white beard, a move seen as an attempt to cast himself as a sage-like figure towering over the country’s contemporary political life.

Politics in Uttar Pradesh has long been dominated by parties catering to various castes. Under Modi, the BJP successfully brought under its umbrella voters from different castes who identify as Hindu first.

The latest victory is likely to help the BJP forge ahead with its controversial agenda, including implementing a citizenship law that excluded Muslims from its ambit and had been pushed to the back burner after nationwide protests. Indian right-wing hard-liners also could push for their long-standing demands, such as a national civil code, which would override religious laws on matters including marriage and inheritance.

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As the incumbent party going into the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections, the BJP faced a patchy governance record. Last year, the state was one of the worst-hit when the ferocious delta wave of the coronavirus pandemic swept the country and overwhelmed the health infrastructure. Corpses floated in the sacred Ganges river and were buried on sandbanks, revealing an enormous toll not always reflected in official figures, experts said.

Successive pandemic-induced lockdowns left millions unemployed, with devastating impacts on India’s poorest, many of whom live in Uttar Pradesh. The year-long protest by farmers against new agriculture laws and rising food prices were other big concerns for citizens.

Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed monk with militant views, sought to frame the election as a fight between its Hindu majority and the minority Muslim population.

The win catapults Adityanath onto the national stage as Modi’s probable successor. When Modi first made a bid for power in 2014, he tempered his Hindu nationalist strongman image, focusing instead on heralding “good days,” but Adityanath has only sharpened his rhetoric while in power. He projects himself as a tough leader, casting his critics and opponents as criminals whom he is fighting single-handedly.

The BJP’s victory has added to the apprehensions of India’s 200 million Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the country’s population. Many Muslims feel under siege amid a sharp rise in hate speech and attacks on their livelihoods and cultural practices in recent months.

Gerry Shih contributed to this report.