Narendra Modi has established himself as India’s only credible national political leader with an astonishing landslide result today in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies are winning more than 320 of 403 seats, compared with about 190 that was the highest generally expected.
The vote was for Modi, not for local candidates, even though he will not be running the state and will hand that task to a chief minister to be named on March 12. The result is even more remarkable because the BJP has not done well in the state for 25 years – in 2012, it won only 47 seats.
Taken together with the results in other states, 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.
The BJP’s large number of UP (and other) assembly seats will also strengthen its clout in indirect elections (due in June and July) to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, where it has been in a minority. That will ease the passage of legislation, which has been blocked by the Congress Party. The UP result will also help Modi choose the country’s next president, who will take office in July.
The result was devastating for Rahul Gandhi, dynastic heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party, which has managed only six or seven seats in UP (down from 28 last time) while its partner, the state-level Samajwadi Party, has about 50. (Figures are a mixture of results and leads, pending completion of counting).
Rahul Gandhi should step down
If ever there was a time for Gandhi , 46, to back off 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 mother and the party president, Sonia Gandhi, is not well, and his sister Priyanka unexpectedly did little campaigning – two weeks ago she was spotted by a friend lunching with Sonia in the Italian Embassy’s cultural center café in Delhi. Unless Priyanka steps in, the dynasty will decline and drag the party with it.
Congress won in Punjab with about 75 assembly seats out of 117, but that is widely seen as primarily a personal vote for Captain Amarinder Singh, a veteran state-level leader who comes from an old regional royal family and is 75 today. He now becomes chief minister for the fourth – and, he has said, final – time.
The results are a disappointment for the Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, who wanted to spread to other states. The party had hoped to be a close challenger of Congress in Punjab, where Kejriwal led the campaign, but came a distant second with only about 23 seats. It did however beat an alliance between the state-level Akali Dal party (which was in power) and the BJP that have about 18 seats. It failed to make an impression in Goa.
The UP result is a serious blow for Akhilesh Yadav, the 43-year old out-going 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 and his leadership is already being challenged.
In other results, BJP won in Uttarakhand, adjacent to UP, with some 56 of the 70 seats, ousting a Congress government and pushing the Congress vote down to around 12. In Goa and the north-east state of Manipur, Congress and the BJP seats are too close to predict the result.
Watching Modi on March 6, when he visited Ramnagar on the banks of the Ganges near Varanasi, I was struck by the charisma of authority and leadership that he projected. He absorbed the “Modi Modi” screams and chants from the crowd and reflected a sense of standing and authority.
Contrast that with the floppy hand waves that Gandhi gives to crowds that have no more meaning that the way that 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, lack of sound governance, and inadequate achievement.
Significantly, the BJP won all the seats in Varanasi, where Modi is the MP, even though there was considerable resentment about a lack of progress in the past three years.
It is not just in Varanasi that Modi is failing to do all the things that voters, especially the poor, think he is and should be doing. The recent bank note ban of demonetisation is wrongly seen, even by people who have suffered, as a worthwhile attack on the rich and corrupt.
Like several of 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 Start-up India have had little real effect on manufacturing investment and new businesses, while the Swachh Bharat cleanliness and sanitation project is under-performing.
The big picture
Some 60 percent of the UP’s 140 million electorate turned out to vote, producing a result that confounded experts who had minutely dissected the views of the state’s myriad of castes and of minorities, notably Muslims. But, as a television reporter said today, “it was a big picture result – people who relied on detailed analysis lost the plot” – the big picture being that Modi has captured the minds of voters desperate for change, especially the poor.
There was relatively little of the communal divide that Modi and his main henchman, Amit Shah, the hardline Hindu-nationalist BJP present, have generated in the past. There were some anti-Muslim issues but generally Shah, who should take the credit for organising the BJP’s election campaign, projected a development message and curbed his own and his more extreme activists’ sentiments.
Modi’s challenge now is to improve 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 is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com.