India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed victory in four key state elections including the country’s most populous state, consolidating support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
The party won a clear majority in the most populous state Uttar Pradesh, securing 255 out of 403 legislative seats, and making it the first party since 1989 to win two consecutive terms in the state.
The scale of the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh is a testament to the popularity of monk-turned-chief minister Yogi Adityanath in the Hindu-majority state, where he has spearheaded populist politics that analysts say are aimed at transforming secular India into a Hindu nation.
Home to more than 200 million people, the state’s election result is often seen as a precursor of what can be expected in India’s general election. Uttar Pradesh votes for the largest chunk of legislators in the national parliament, and the BJP’s presence in the state is likely to bolster support for Modi when he stands for election for a third time in 2024.
Modi has fiercely backed Adityanath during his campaign in Uttar Pradesh, and Thursday’s win means controversial Adityanath is set to be reinstalled as the state’s chief minister.
Thursday’s result is a slip on the 2017 result, when the BJP soared to victory, winning 312 out of 403 legislative assembly seats.
“Today is a day to celebrate India’s democracy. I congratulate all voters who took part in this election,” Modi said Thursday as he addressed a massive, cheering crowd at the BJP headquarters in Delhi.
The BJP also won elections in the states of Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa, while in the northern state of Punjab, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s party, the Aam Aadmi Party, toppled India’s main opposition, the Congress Party, which had previously held the state.
Why the win is significant
During his five years as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath became known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims. In a 2019 speech, he said the Muslim vote was a “green virus” trying to take over the country. In February, he used a derogatory word when referring to Muslim men in an interview with a local television channel.
And in the past five years, the state has passed legislation that critics say is deeply rooted in Hindutva ideology – which seeks to make Hindu values culturally dominant.
It has made the transport and sale of cows – an animal considered sacred to Hindus – more difficult, and aggressively campaigned to shut down slaughterhouses. In 2020, the state introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill, which makes it harder for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity. Some cities named after historic Muslim figures have had their names changed to reflect India’s Hindu history.
But ahead of the election, the BJP faced two of its toughest political obstacles in the state in recent years: a devastating second wave of Covid infections last year, and a year-long protest by farmers, some of whom traveled from Uttar Pradesh and occupied roads on the outskirts of India’s capital Delhi for months.
Last year, Uttar Pradesh faced an unprecedented health crisis as coronavirus cases surged throughout India, leading to overwhelmed hospitals and overcrowded crematoriums. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has recorded more than 23,000 deaths – but the number is considered to be a gross underestimation by experts.
The BJP has faced allegations of underreporting its cases and deaths, with families accusing the government of not being well-prepared.
The opposing left-leaning Samajwadi Party, led by the 48-year-old former chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, attempted to play on these accusations.
But it wasn’t enough to wrestle control of the state back from the BJP, where the population is 80% Hindu.
According to Sharat Pradhan, an independent journalist from Uttar Pradesh, issues like “unemployment and inflation are overshadowed” by caste and religion.
Analysts now worry that the scale of this latest win may solidify the idea that the BJP’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric is more valued than infrastructure and development.
“With Adityanath winning back-to-back elections, he will be unstoppable,” said Niranajan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.