Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party won a landslide victory in four state elections on Thursday as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral juggernaut continued in preparation for the 2024 general elections.
Counting of votes for the five Indian states that polled in a month-long staggered election over February and March was under way late on Thursday, with Mr Modi’s BJP sweeping to victory in four states.
Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party made a foray into national politics by winning Punjab, a first electoral victory for the party outside Delhi where it has been in power since 2014.
BJP was leading in 252 seats in the 403-seat Uttar Pradesh assembly, with nearest regional political rival the Samajwadi Party leading in 114.
The party had won a thumping majority in 2017's state polls and hand-picked Yogi Adityanath, 49, a firebrand Hindu priest politician and a known anti-Muslim figure — for the top job.
Thousands of party workers wearing saffron scarves gathered at party headquarters in state capital Lucknow, waving flags as they chanted “Long live Modi-Yogi” and “Jai Shri Ram” — a Hindu religious slogan.
Television channels showed Mr Yogi wearing his signature orange robes and with his face smeared with orange colour powder — flashing a V sign for victory and throwing petals on his supporters in Lucknow.
“The massive victory is the blessing of the people to the state government’s model of development … BJP has created history in Uttar Pradesh and it has become possible because of the guidance of Prime Minister Modi,” Mr Adityanath told his supporters.
With a population of more than 200 million, Uttar Pradesh is a political bellwether state and sends the highest number of members to the Indian Parliament.
BJP’s electoral win in the state is widely accepted as crucial step to consolidate power before the next general elections in 2024.
Mr Adityanath had touted his government’s infrastructure development, eliminating criminal gangs and corruption, as well as welfare schemes for the poor, as his main electoral planks.
But his main challenger and former chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav from SP, had cornered him over growing unemployment, farmer miseries, lawlessness and engaging in sectarian rhetoric.
Last month, Mr Adityanath told an election gathering that the electoral fight was between 80 and 20 per cent, implying the majority of India's 80 per cent Hindus versus 20 per cent Muslims.
Since 2017, the state has passed a number of laws targeting Muslims, including criminalising interfaith marriages and stringent cow protection.
“Yogi Adityanath doesn’t have a taint of corruption on him, he is considered a selfless leader,” Manisha Priyam, a Delhi-based political analyst, told The National.
“This victory is the merger of majority Hindutva politics and governance in a corruption-free manner."
Mr Modi’s BJP was leading ahead of Indian National Congress, its political rival in northern Uttarakhand, western Goa and north-eastern Manipur state.
In Punjab, the centre of a year-long street protests by farmers, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP inflicted a crushing defeat on the incumbent Indian Congress Party.
It was leading by 92 seats in the 117-member assembly.
The Sikh majority state — known as the breadbasket of India — with a population of 30 million, voted on issues of unemployment, development, illegal sand mining and the menace of drug gangs.
Three contentious farm laws bulldozed by Mr Modi’s government in 2020 were also crucial electoral issues.
Tens of thousands of farmers had camped outside New Delhi for a year to protest against the laws that aimed to privatise India’s agriculture sector before being repealed in November.
Thousands of AAP supporters celebrated the landslide victory at the party headquarters in Delhi and Punjab that was festooned with blue and white balloons as scores of workers flashed brooms, AAP's symbol.
The grand old Congress party, which has held power for most the time since India gained independence from Britain in 1947, lost in all the states.
“Humbly accept the people’s verdict,” Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, said as he conceded the defeat.
The elections were crucial for BJP and Mr Modi’s image after the Hindu nationalist party lost state elections in West Bengal last year as a second wave of coronavirus infection exploded across the country.
The BJP-led government was accused of gross mismanagement of the pandemic as tens of thousands died due to lack of oxygen beds and medicine.
In Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of bodies were seen floating in the River Ganges and scores of bodies were buried on the river banks as crematoriums ran out of space.
The BJP also revoked the farm laws in an unprecedented move in anticipation of losing vote share in vital agricultural regions of Uttar Pradesh.
But political analysts said BJP’s big win, despite issues of Covid mismanagement, allegations of sectarianism, growing unemployment rates and poor economy, shows the masses believe the party, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, reflects growing support for Hindutva and nationalism.
Hindutva is a Hindu hegemony agenda propagated by the right-wing ideology.
“BJP believes in a strong nationalist position and majoritarian politics and they are going to take this as a referendum to their agenda,” Ms Priyam said.
“At this point, after this election Modi will sweep 2024. There is no opposition. They fought the election in a minute and micro sort of way … they withdrew the farmers’ laws, they made amendments … they left no stone unturned."