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Modi leads BJP to landslide victory in state elections

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a landslide victory in state elections in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh, an affirmation of his enduring popularity midway through his term.

The Hindu nationalist BJP won 324 of 403 state assembly seats in India’s most populous state, a magnitude of victory not seen in state polls there since 1980.

The decisive mandate in a state sends 80 legislators to India’s 545 seat Parliament and suggests that Mr Modi is well placed for an easy re-election victory in the next Parliamentary elections, due in 2019.

“There is no question that this is a huge vote of confidence for Modi — even more than it is for the BJP,” says Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and author of a recent book on Indian politics, told the FT.

“In the run up to 2019, they are in the driver’s seat,” Mr Vaishnav added. “There is no one who can go toe-to-toe, head-to-head with Modi or match his popularity. That is a huge advantage.”

The BJP framed the election in Uttar Pradesh — where it has not held power since 2002 — as a referendum on Mr Modi, who campaigned heavily in the province in recent weeks.

‘He may have hit us in one eye, but he hit the rich in two eyes’

The BJP’s sweep of Uttar Pradesh — in which Mr Modi faced two local parties — demonstrates that the disruption unleashed by Mr Modi’s audacious November ban on the use of 86 per cent of India’s currency has inflicted little political damage on the prime minister.

To the contrary, the demonetisation — which was cast as a strike at corrupt individuals hoarding illicit cash — has reinforced Mr Modi’s image as a decisive leader, willing to take strong measures to reshape an economy and society pervaded with corruption.

“He may have hit us in one eye, but he hit the rich in two eyes,” said a farmer in a village two hours outside of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. 

After the results, Mr Modi tweeted, “gratitude to the people of India for the continued faith, support and affection for the BJP. This is very humbling, and very overwhelming.” 

Uttar Pradesh was the biggest prize of the five states — including Punjab, Uttrakhand, Manipur and Goa — that elected new state administrations in votes that were counted on Saturday.

The BJP also swept the Himalayan state of Uttrakhand, which had been one of the few states still ruled by the opposition Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the dynasty that had ruled India for most of its years since independence.

The election offered some solace to Congress, which managed to capitalise on the intense anti-incumbent sentiment towards Punjab’s previously ruling party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, to win power in the fertile northern state.

However, the results in Punjab were a disappointment to the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) party led by Arvind Kerjiwal, New Delhi’s chief minister, who cherished hopes of expanding his young party’s footprint beyond its base in the capital city to win power in a heartland state.

Despite an inflow of funds and manpower from supportive non-resident Indians, the AAP finished a distant second in Punjab, well behind the Congress.

Congress also emerged as the largest party in the tiny northeastern state of Manipur, which it has ruled for the last 15 years, and in Goa, which has been ruled by the BJP. But it fell short of a majority in both states, suggesting political skirmishes in the days ahead over who will form the state governments.

Addition reporting by Henny Sender

Via FT