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What to Make of Indian State Election Results

Modi isn’t going anywhere, and the opposition needs to start going somewhere.

winning modi

If Saturday’s election results in five Indian states — including the country’s largest, Uttar Pradesh — were a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he appears to have passed it.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is now in coalition governments in four of the five states, including in UP, where the margin of victory was the largest the state had seen any party win in 30 years.

“Obviously, this was a huge shot in the arm for the BJP,” Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Foreign Policy. “It was in some ways more Modi’s victory than the party’s. They really ran election campaigns across the board on his back, his credibility, his persona, his decisiveness, and credibility.”

BJP’s victory suggests that it’s on its way to becoming a national, pan-Indian party and bodes well for its performance in the 2019 federal elections. “Traditional wisdom in Indian politics holds that you vote your caste instead of casting your vote,” New America’s Ronak Desai told FP. But “BJP was able to overcome traditional factors.”

It also means that, even with the instability created by November’s demonetization, in which Modi decided to root out corruption by getting rid of over 85 percent of currency in circulation without warning, Indian voters are giving Modi, to use Vaishnav’s parlance, “a long leash.”

“People are saying, ‘okay, Modi has a track record of getting things done, working hard, clean governance,” Vaishnav said, explaining that this was particularly resonant in UP, which has traditionally lagged behind other regions.

And while state elections were focused on local issues, “nationalism did play a role in this campaign,” Vaishnav said. “Surgical strikes against Pakistan had an effect of rallying around the flag … People seem happy with the sort of muscular nationalism Modi represents.”

Meanwhile, the opposition wasn’t so successful. The anti-corruption focused Aam Aadmi Party failed to win either Punjab or Goa, which would have allowed them to expand to a second state, thereby becoming a more national party. The National Congress Party, which was for decades seen as the default party of governance, failed to come up with either a leader or a platform that was appealing to voters. And, as Desai noted, other parties also “failed to come together in a meaningful way” to block Modi and BJP.

Whether or not they are able to do so before 2019 may determine the extent to which they are living in Modi’s India for years to come.

Photo credit: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin