India's Modi Sweeps Four States in a Landslide

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi garlanded by party leaders during a ceremony at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi on March 12. John Elliott writes that in the latest election results in five states, the BJP has recovered from its embarrassing general election defeats in Delhi and Bihar in 2014. BJP now rules in states covering more than 60 percent of the population, and it is clear that Modi has established himself as a dominant national leader with no rivals to challenge him. Adnan Abidi/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Narendra Modi has established himself as India's only credible national political leader, and has set 2022 as the target year for developing a strong India.

He achieved an astonishing landslide victory in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 312 out of 403 seats, compared with a figure of around 190, which was generally the highest to be expected.

The result was announced on March 11, when counting took place in five states' assembly elections—the BJP is now set to form governments in four of them.

The Uttar Pradesh vote was primarily for Modi, not for local candidates, even though he will not be running the state. Having dominated the campaign in presidential style and achieved victory, he will hand that task to a chief minister, who is yet to be named.

The chief minister's tough task, working in the shadow of Modi and his main henchman, Amit Shah, the hard-line Hindu-nationalist BJP president who ran the campaign, will be to replace the past Uttar Pradesh government's corrupt and ineffective rule with development-oriented policies and strong law and order.

At a victory rally in New Delhi on March 12, Modi said, "My target is 2022, not 2019. 2022 will mark 75 years of India's independence."

That means he is looking beyond the next general election in 2019 to the end of the five-year term of this weekend's state assembly results. Talking about a "new India", Modi said, "If everyone bears the mood of development, then all our dreams and progress would be achieved. This is the environment we need to create."

The Uttar Pradesh result, which reflects voting trends in the BJP's general election landslide in 2014, is even more remarkable because the party has not done well in the state for 25 years. In 2012, it won only 48 seats, whereas its total this time was 325, including its allies.

The BJP has now recovered from embarrassing defeats in Delhi and Bihar state polls after the 2014 general election. It rules in states covering more than 60 percent of the population, and it is clear that Modi has established a dominant leadership position nationally with no rivals to challenge him.

Barring unforeseen events, he can look forward to the second term as prime minister that he craves after the next general election in 2019—providing he is perceived to be delivering in the next two years.

The BJP's large number of Uttar Pradesh (and other) assembly seats will help Modi choose the country's next president, who will take office in July. It will also help to gradually strengthen the party's clout over the next year or so in indirect elections to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, where it has been in a minority. That will eventually ease the passage of legislation, which has been blocked by the Congress Party.

The result was devastating for Rahul Gandhi, dynastic heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party, which managed only seven seats in Uttar Pradesh (down from 28 last time) while its partner, the state-level Samajwadi Party, won 47.

Rahul Gandhi should step down

If ever there was a time for Gandhi, 46, to back away from politics, it is now, because he has proved himself to be a lightweight with no leadership potential and no positive political or economic message. His lack of focus and leadership has allowed Goa, and most likely Manipur, to go to the BJP.

Congress has even had the humiliation of the BJP winning six out of 10 assembly seats in the Gandhi family's traditional political base—the districts of Amethi and Rae Bareli, where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are members of Parliament.

Rahul's mother and the party president, Sonia Gandhi, is not well and is reported to be abroad for a health check-up (presumably at a New York clinic, which she has visited before).

His sister, Priyanka, did unexpectedly little campaigning. Two weeks ago, she was spotted by a friend lunching with Sonia in the Italian Embassy's Cultural Centre café in Delhi. Unless Priyanka steps in, the dynasty will decline and drag the party with it—and it may now be too late for her to mount a rescue.

Congress won in Punjab with 77 assembly seats out of 117, but that is widely seen as a primarily personal vote for Captain Amarinder Singh, a veteran state-level leader who comes from an old regional royal family and is now 75. He will become chief minister for the fourth—and, he has said, final—time.

The results are a serious setback for the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi's chief minister, who wanted to spread the party's role to other states. The party had hoped to be a close challenger of Congress in Punjab, where Kejriwal led the campaign, but came in a distant second with only 22 seats.

It did, however, beat an alliance between the state-level Akali Dal Party (which was in power) and the BJP, which together have 18 seats. In Goa, it failed to win any seats.

The Uttar Pradesh result is a major defeat for Akhilesh Yadav, the 43-year-old outgoing chief minister who recently seized the Samajwadi Party leadership from his veteran politician father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Akhilesh linked up with Congress, primarily to woo the state's large Muslim vote, but that partnership failed.

In other results, BJP won in Uttarakhand, adjacent to Uttar Pradesh, with 57 of the 70 seats, ousting a Congress government and pushing the Congress seats down to 11.

BJP coups in Goa and Manipur

In Goa, Congress and an ally won the most assembly seats—18 out of 40, beating the BJP, which had been in power and only won 14 seats with allies. But the BJP has recruited a small regional party to form a coalition that will be headed by Manohar Parrikar as chief minister. Parrikar had held the job previously, and has been India's defense minister since 2014.

The BJP also expects to form the government in the northeastern state of Manipur, even though Congress led the polls with 28 out of 60 seats, compared with the BJP's 21. The BJP tally was good for the party, which has not had a previous presence in the state, and it is has gathered support from other parties and individual assembly members.

That will leave Congress to form the government only in Punjab, a success that pales into virtual insignificance compared with the defeat in Uttar Pradesh, where Rahul Gandhi personally led his party's campaign with Akhilesh Yadav.

Modi's charisma

Watching Modi in Ramnagar on the banks of the Ganges River near Varanasi, when he went there on March 6, I was struck by the charisma of authority and leadership that he projected. He absorbed the "Modi, Modi" screams and chants from the crowds and reflected a sense of standing and authority.

Contrast that with the floppy hand waves that Gandhi gives to crowds, which have no more meaning than the way friends say goodbye to each other. Gandhi also has no message of hope, whereas Modi inspires a widespread respect for trying to tackle the country's immense problems of corruption, absence of sound governance and inadequate achievement.

Significantly, the BJP and its allies won all the seats in Varanasi, where Modi has been member of Parliament since 2014. Over the past three years, there has been considerable resentment regarding the lack of progress there, and this prompted Modi to be based in the constituency for the final three days of campaigning—an investment that clearly paid off.

It is not just in Varanasi that Modi is failing to do what voters, especially the poor, think he is and should be doing. The recent banknote ban of demonetization has been wrongly seen, even by people who have suffered, as a worthwhile attack on the rich and corrupt.

Like several other attention-catching schemes that Modi has launched, demonetization has yet to show any significant positive impact, apart from some increased use of electronic and digital banking. Schemes such as Make in India and Startup India have had little effect on manufacturing, investment and new businesses, while the Swachh Bharat cleanliness and sanitation project is underperforming.

The big picture

Some 60 percent of the 140 million electorate in Uttar Pradesh (which sends 80 members to Parliament) turned out to vote, about 40 percent of whom voted for the BJP. The BJP had done careful caste-based calculations in its choice of candidates and local election strategies, but the result confounded experts who had minutely dissected the views of the state's various castes and of minorities, notably Muslims.

As a television reporter said, "It was a big picture result—people who relied on detailed analysis lost the plot." In the big picture, Modi captured the minds of voters desperate for change, especially the poor, while also straddling castes and classes.

There was relatively little of the communal divide that Modi and Amit Shah have generated in the past. There were some anti-Muslim issues, but generally Shah, who should take the credit for organizing the BJP's election campaign, projected a development message and curbed most of his own and his more extreme activists' sentiments.

Modi's challenge now is to accelerate his government's performance nationally and deliver the improvements that voters expect to see in their lives. His next test is an assembly election in his home state of Gujarat later this year, and then other key states next year.

After that, the 2019 general election is his to win.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).