India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won decisive victories on Saturday in state legislative assembly elections in Uttarakhand and especially Uttar Pradesh (UP). The party won 325 of 403 seats in UP, India’s most populous state (if it were an independent country, it would be the fifth largest in the world). While the BJP’s incumbent coalition partner lost badly in Punjab, the BJP also polled strongly in the north-eastern state of Manipur, where it previously had little presence, and in Goa it is in negotiations to form a government with the support of smaller parties.
State elections take place on a rolling schedule in India, with just a couple more scheduled this year. But as a mid-term indicator of the ruling party’s popularity, the UP result alone is a ringing endorsement of the BJP and of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, in particular. Modi led the campaign in UP, and the BJP did not even name its candidate to be the state’s chief minister, so the election win is a personal victory for a politician who has always been controversial.
Modi came to prominence as the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, where he gained a two-sided reputation. Gujarat enjoyed a decent amount of economic development during Modi’s tenure, largely driven by foreign investment, and the ‘Gujarat model’ was touted as something for the rest of India to emulate. But the BJP is also the party of Hindu nationalism, the political wing of a movement that is often hostile to Muslims and other minorities. So when hundreds of people, mostly Muslims, were killed in sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002, many held Modi responsible.
When Modi was named as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, and unexpectedly won the general election outright, both sides of his reputation had a good airing. Nearly three years on, however, Modi can be judged on his record as prime minister. Following the weekend’s election results, BJP finance minister Arun Jaitley said, ‘BJP’s landslide victory in assembly elections has again established that people of India want development as pushed by PM’.
It has to be said that India’s economic performance in the past three years has been far from stellar, but Modi’s one headline policy was a coup de théâtre. Many observers saw the state elections as a referendum on ‘demonetisation’. On 8 November last year, Modi announced that, from midnight, current 500 and 1,000 rupee notes (about 85 per cent of the notes in circulation) would no longer be legal tender and would have to be deposited in banks to be redeemed. This was intended as a blow against the cash-based shadow economy and rampant tax evasion.