India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked set to tighten his grip on power on Saturday with early trends from a string of state elections showing his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leading in the key battleground of Uttar Pradesh.
Polling trends on the Election Commission of India website showed the BJP storming ahead in 221 seats out of the 272 constituencies in the state where counting was underway. Home to 220 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the biggest electoral prize in the world’s largest democracy.
The party needs 202 seats to take power in the 403-member assembly where a victory will consolidate Modi’s grip on national politics two years before general elections. The results could also strengthen Modi’s hand in parliament’s upper house where his lack of a majority has stalled his reform agenda.
The alliance between the ruling regional Samajwadi Party and beleaguered Congress party was trailing in a distant second with leads in 64 seats in the state.
In Punjab, the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party was trailing behind Congress, with results—expected by late afternoon—also due in the smaller states of Goa, Uttarakhand and northeastern Manipur. Since winning the first overall majority in three decades in the 2014 general election, Modi’s dominance has been largely unchallenged and he already looks well placed for re-election in 2019.
Even the major cash shortages, which followed November’s shock ban on high denomination bank notes appears to have done little damage to his standing, particularly with Congress in disarray.
“If the BJP wins in UP, it will not only bolster its position but quell all the fears about the BJP and Modi’s image being eroded by demonetization,” said veteran political commentator Bharat Bhushan. “A victory in UP will make Modi more confident… and he will be able to do what he wants to do.”
But the two biggest setbacks of his premiership came when the BJP was roundly beaten in elections for Delhi’s local assembly and the state of Bihar in 2015 so Modi will not be taking anything for granted. The multi-phase elections, which began in February, ended on Wednesday after which exit polls—that have proved unreliable in the past—were allowed to be published.
Nearly all predicted the BJP to come out on top in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Goa. The AAP—an anti-corruption party led by Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal—was tipped in some surveys to win Punjab.
The only crumb of comfort for Congress—which has led India for most of the post-independence period—was in Punjab where initial trends gave it the edge.
Uttar Pradesh has been ruled since 2012 by the socialist Samajwadi Party whose leader and current Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav went into an alliance for the election with Congress. Yadav has been trying to tap into the pain from Modi’s cash ban, campaigning alongside Congress’ front man Rahul Gandhi.
The BJP fared poorly in the last UP elections, winning only 47 out of 403 assembly seats, but it clinched 73 out of 80 parliamentary constituencies in 2014 with Modi standing in the holy city of Varanasi. A BJP win in Uttar Pradesh would have significant implications for the make-up of the Rajya Sabha—the upper house of parliament.
Several of Modi’s key reforms such as a nationwide sales tax have stalled in the chamber due to his lack of a BJP majority. Its make-up is based on parties’ strength in the state assemblies, with the biggest states supplying the largest number of M.P.s.
Nistula Hebbar, political editor of The Hindu newspaper, said Modi could find himself with the kind of power not seen for decades. “These polls will tell us whether we are going back to the 1960s and 1970s, when there was only one strong national party. Back then it was the Congress, now it’s the BJP. The rest are all regional,” Hebbar said.