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India's ruling BJP suffers setbacks in state elections

A reinvigorated Congress could anchor an anti-BJP coalition, analyst suggests

Indian Congress party supporters celebrate election results in Ahmedabad on December 11, 2018. AFP
Indian Congress party supporters celebrate election results in Ahmedabad on December 11, 2018. AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered its worst set of electoral defeats since 2014, as it is poised to lose in all five states that voted for new governments over the past two weeks.

The polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Telangana signalled setbacks to the BJP and its brand of Hindu-nationalist politics, making it far less certain that the party will romp back into power in the general election next summer.

The five states went to polls in three phases through late November and early December. Vote counting, which began on Tuesday morning, continued into Tuesday evening, with the election commission releasing trends through the day.

In the southern state of Telangana, the incumbent regional party Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) was leading in 88 out of 119 seats in the local legislature on Tuesday evening, looking comfortably set to retain power.

In the north-eastern state of Mizoram, the Mizo National Front, another local party, led in 26 out of 40 seats. The BJP led in just one seat in each state.

The BJP’s most painful defeats came, however, in the other three states, which are part of the north-central heartland where it is ordinarily most powerful and where it lost ground to its rival, the left-leaning Indian National Congress, often referred to simply as Congress.

In Chhattisgarh, trends from ongoing counting showed the Congress was ahead in 65 out of 90 seats, compared to the BJP’s 17; in Rajasthan, the Congress led in 100 seats out of 200, and the BJP in 70. In Madhya Pradesh, a far closer contest, the Congress led in 112 out of 230 seats and the BJP in 109.

The BJP’s performance in these polls is a sharp reversal of its recent electoral fortunes. When Mr Modi first came to power in 2014, the party held seven of India’s 29 states; by the middle of this past summer, the BJP ruled, alone or in coalition, in 20 states. The BJP had become used to winning, and the Congress to losing.

So by mid-morning on Tuesday, as results were announced, Congress workers gathered outside the party’s headquarters in Delhi, raising flags, shouting slogans, and pounding out their excitement on drums. The BJP’s offices wore a quieter, more despondent look.

“Any party, if it loses [an] election, needs to introspect,” Sambit Patra, a BJP spokesperson, told reporters on Tuesday. Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, insisted however that the losses were not a reflection of Mr Modi and his performance.

But the results certainly jolted a party whose image had suffered extensively the previous day.

First on Monday, Upendra Kushwaha, a junior minister in the government and the leader of one of the BJP’s allied parties, resigned. He said he felt “betrayed and dejected” by Mr Modi’s leadership, and that the prime minister worked only to hobble his political opponents and not for any real sort of development.

Hours later, the governor of India’s central bank, Urjit Patel, quit in the middle of his term. In his resignation letter, he cited “personal reasons” for his departure, but two sources close to Mr Patel told The National that he had been coming under mounting pressure to dilute the bank’s autonomy and permit a greater degree of government control over it.


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Mihir Sharma, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi, pointed out that state voting patterns often vary from national patterns.

“These elections shouldn't be seen as indicative of how the north will vote in general elections,” Mr Sharma said. “Modi was not on the ballot in these; we don't know if they signify a drop in his popularity as well as in that of local leaders.”

That said, he added, “the revival of the Congress is significant as it shows it can once again serve as the anchor of an [anti-BJP] coalition.”

In campaigning for these five state elections, the BJP tried hard to rouse its Hindu nationalist base. Its star campaigner was not Mr Modi but Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest who is now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Addressing 74 rallies in four of the five states that held recent elections, Mr Adityanath hammered home his pet themes. He pilloried Muslims, referring to them implicitly as terrorists. He argued for reviving India’s Vedic traditions, traditions based on the Hindu religious texts. He promised to rename Indian cities, scrubbing them of any Islamic etymologies and conferring Hindu ones upon them.

He also referred repeatedly to the BJP’s project of building a temple to the deity Ram in the town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, where a mosque had once stood before being demolished by right-wing Hindus in 1992.

But nationalist rhetoric “works, in my view, only as long as demagogues can keep the frenzy up through speeches,” said Prasanna Karmakar, a voter in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana.

Mr Karmakar, who works as a consultant for advertising agencies, said people will inevitably realise that nationalism is no substitute for their real needs: “transportation, clean air, jobs, opportunities.” In his state, the TRS had delivered development, he said, which was why it was voted back into power.

But the BJP’s religious nationalists could yet serve it well, Mr Sharma said.

“Adityanath serves to rally the faithful, and to enthuse the party cadre,” he said. Next year “may come down to turnout and energy,” he said – and Mr Adityanath might yet prove crucial.

Updated: December 11, 2018 06:20 PM