NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party had a commanding lead in India’s most populous state as votes were counted Thursday, despite criticism of his government’s handling of the pandemic, soaring unemployment and farmer protests.
Data from India’s Election Commission showed the Bharatiya Janata Party comfortably ahead in Uttar Pradesh state in voting seen as a crucial test for Modi’s popularity before national elections in 2024. Modi’s BJP was also ahead in three more states, while India’s main opposition Congress party was facing a rout in Punjab, the data showed.
The final tallies for the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa after a month of voting were expected by Thursday evening at the earliest.
The results, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, are seen as a referendum on Modi’s popularity and a resounding endorsement of his party's Hindu-first politics. They will also dent the hopes of opposition parties that are banking on forming a united front to challenge Modi in the next general election.
Uttar Pradesh is governed by Yogi Adityanath, a highly divisive Hindu monk-turned-politician whose rise has been marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. He is expected to return as the chief minister of the state, with results showing Modi’s party ahead in about 255 of the 403 seats — well beyond the simple majority needed to form a government.
In the last Uttar Pradesh state election in 2017, the BJP and its allies swept the polls. The results then were widely attributed to Modi’s popularity and Hindu-first politics, and he returned as prime minister for a second term in the 2019 general election.
Uttar Pradesh sends 80 legislators to India's Parliament, the most of any state. Voting there has been long seen as a crucial bellwether for national elections.
Modi’s party has been under immense pressure to steer an economy that was sputtering even before the COVID-19 pandemic, with unemployment a key issue among voters. The elections were also the first after a calamitous surge in infections sparked anger, with many accusing the Adityanath government of mismanagement.
In the leadup to the polls in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP promised to spur development and wooed voters with welfare measures. Its core message focused on big-ticket projects combining religion with infrastructure that analysts said were aimed at pleasing the BJP’s Hindu base. But uncertainties about the vote's outcome had been raised by multiple defections to the main opposition in the state, the Samajwadi Party, whose secular appeal pulled voters from a wide range of castes as well as the Muslim community.
The BJP headquarters in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh's capital, was festooned with garlands made of marigolds. Supporters set off fireworks, danced to the beat of drums and waved saffron flags.
“We won this election because the party was able to deliver. Whatever we had promised we delivered in the last five years. We went to the people with the report card and they approved our work,” said Surendra Soni, a party worker.
Before the polls, questions were also raised whether farmers, an influential voting bloc, would rally behind the BJP. Many farmers were still furious at Modi for pushing through contentious agriculture laws that triggered a yearlong protest before he yielded and revoked them in November.
This anger also set the tone for polls in nearby Punjab state, considered the grain bowl of India, where the Aam Aadmi Party, which was formed in 2013 to fight corruption and has since ruled the national territory of Delhi for two consecutive terms, was attempting to oust the opposition Congress party.
Partial returns in Punjab showed a resounding win for the Aam Aadmi Party, which was leading in about 92 of the 117 seats.
Aam Aadmi Party leaders said they now are 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 spokesperson Raghav Chadha told the New Delhi Television news channel.
The Congress party, which once had a nationwide footprint, is in turmoil after its 2019 national election debacle, and some of its key young leaders have switched to the BJP. With its loss in Punjab, the party will find it difficult to revive its fortunes as regional parties such as AAP are taking the space challenging the BJP domination.
Modi’s party is also expected to hold power for a second consecutive term in Uttarakhand state, the Election Commission data showed.
In elections in the two smaller states of Manipur and Goa, the BJP was in tight races but ahead of other parties.
Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma in New Delhi and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.