After seven phases spread over five weeks, the state assembly polls in India have finally come to an end on March 10th, handing out a major victory to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), prime minister Narendra Modi’s party. Elections were held in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand, where the BJP has claimed victory in four over five of the crucial states in what is largely seen as a test for the 2024 general elections and the popularity of the Hindu nationalist agenda. Already from the early hours of the exit polls, the BJP appeared set to retain power in the biggest and most politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh and in the smaller states (also in terms of political weight) of Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.
The BJP has lost only in the state of Punjab to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – the “com mon man party”, the formerly anti-establishment political faction ruling the national capital, Delhi – who dislodged the Congress from its stronghold and swept Punjab with three-fourths majority. The result in Punjab was no surprize in a way: the BJP was set to lose in the “grain bowl” of India, the state from where the farmers protest was propelled last year. The AAP will also be in power in two other states and this historic win is seen to give a boost to its role at the national level and to the opposition field ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha, or general polls.
The Indian National Congress, India’s historic party who ruled the country from the independence almost uninterruptedly until 2014 (when the BJP cashed in a landslide victory), emerged as the main loser in this poll. The Congress is now in power only in the states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. At an all-time low, it lost its Punjab stronghold and could bag only two seats in Uttar Pradesh. Historian and political commentator, Ramachandra Guha, on a recent interview with The Wire, suggested that all three of the Gandhi family – namely Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, heir of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty – should retire from politics “for the country’s good”, for they do not represent any credible and active opposition to the power of the ruling BJP. Rumours have it that they are considering this option, but no confirmation has yet come from the party.
The polls brought a victory for the Hindu nationalist of BJP also in the northern state of Uttarakhand, where the party gained 47 seats on 70, and in Manipur, where it got a tight majority, with 32 seats on 60, and it will form the government on its own for the first time in the history of the north-eastern state. Goa is the only state where the polls brought a hung assembly and the BJP, with only 20 seats on 40, will have to rely on independents and regional parties to form the next government in order to overcome the threshold of 50 per cent seats +1. Nevertheless, a win for the ruling BJP. After the declaration of results, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed BJP workers at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi. Labelling the victory as a “jeet ka chauka” (boundary of wins), Modi claimed the outcome showed voters’ support for the pro-poor and pro-active governance of his party.
But it is Uttar Pradesh – the largest and most politically influential state – where all the eyes were set on: with its 200 million people (about the same number of residents as Brazil) it as a huge weight in terms of political representation. It is also a highly polarized state where the anti-incumbency vote has been usually prevalent, but not this time: the BJP was reconfirmed, yet with a reduced majority compared to the 2017 sweeping victory. No incumbent chief minister has ever ruled the state for two successive terms since 1947. The results at the state’s election are largely seen as an indicator of what can be expected at the general election. As India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh represent the also the largest chunk of legislators in the national parliament, and the BJP’s presence is likely to reinforce Modi’s party during the election in 2024.
With 274 seats on 403, the BJP (and its allies) secured a large majority reconfirming Yogi Adityanath, a highly divisive Hindu monk-turned-politician whose rhetoric has been marked by anti-Muslim sentiment and widespread communal violence. The saffron-robed monk, who has never made a secret of his aversion for the Muslim minority – that in Uttar Pradesh reaches 19 per cent of the population, compared to 14 per cent at the national level – rose to power in 2017 when he was the priest of a Hindu temple in Gorakhpur. He is also the founder of a group of vigilantes called the Hindu Yuva Vahini, which has spread terror in the state among Muslim and Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) since its foundation in 2002.
Under his rule in the past five years, the slaughter of cows – an animal who is considered sacred by the Hindu majority – has been banned, wreaking havoc among communities, mainly Muslim and Dalits, who rely on the business for their livelihood. In 2020, Adityanath also passed a law that prevents religious conversion of interfaith couples with the bogeyman of the so-called “love jihad”, a baseless conspiracy theory according to which Muslim men are seducing Hindu girls to lure them into marriage and then conversion with the ultimate aim of subverting the demographic balance between India’s main religious communities. Under his tenure, many historical names in the state were “hinduized” in order to conceal the Mughal – read Muslim – past. Violence against women, against journalists reporting on the ground, activists and protesters is prevalent in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and has only risen in the past five years.
On the socio-economic sphere, Uttar Pradesh – a historical Congress stronghold – has done poorly under the BJP’s rule. Despite having widely used the rhetoric of development, Adityanath, the man who is considered Modi’s heir apparent, has not set positive records on the economic level in a state that is among the poorest in India, where unemployment and inflation are skyrocketing. Moreover, Uttar Pradesh came heavily under scrutiny during the second wave of Covid-19 last year, when India was ravaged by the coronavirus and authorities tried to deny the huge toll the mismanagement of the pandemic took on the population: a year ago, corpses of the victims buried on the sandy river banks came afloat during the monsoon, revealing that the real death toll was much higher than officially declared. Nevertheless, the BJP and its allies swept the Samajwadi Party, led by the former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who was not able to regain control of the state.
As the BJP’s big win in Uttar Pradesh shows consolidation of the Hindutva project – an old right-wing movement that aims at turning multicultural and secular India into an ethnic Hindu state – the danger posed by the BJP’s communal and fascist policies cannot be underestimated. “Anti-Muslim bigotry remains a potent weapon in the hands of the party and its use is going to grow, not diminish, in the run up to the next Lok Sabha election” wrote Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire news outlet. “This is the implicit message that Modi is trying to convey when he speaks of the BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh paving the way for his re-election as prime minister in 2024”.
Cover Photo: Chief Minister of India’s Uttar Pradesh state Yogi Adityanath (wearing pink scarf) gestures to his supporters after Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) win in the state assembly elections – Lucknow, 10 March 2022.(Sanjay Kanoja / AFP).
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