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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party is on course for a series of resounding victories in closely watched state polls that will further strengthen its grip over national politics ahead of general elections next year.
With counting still under way on Sunday, the BJP was on track to win a majority in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, three states in the populous and politically influential northern Hindi-speaking belt — flipping the last two away from rivals the opposition Indian National Congress.
Congress was on course to win a majority only in Telangana, a prosperous southern state.
The wipeout in northern India, if confirmed, will deal a blow to efforts by the opposition party to secure its place as the main challenger next year. The national elections, when Modi hopes to secure a third term as prime minister, are expected to start in April.
“Modi’s appeal is still very strong in the Hindi heartland,” said Asim Ali, a political commentator based in Delhi. The prime minister and his allies would now “get a free hand to run the 2024 campaign. Had the BJP done badly in these elections, I think dissension would have begun,” Ali said.
Smriti Irani, a BJP minister, said the results were evidence of “Modi Magic” — what party loyalists call the prime minister’s personal popularity and ability to win votes.
The party leaned heavily on the prime minister to lead their campaigning for the elections, which were staggered over November. Modi spent weeks travelling across the states to tout the BJP’s record.
A smaller fifth state, Mizoram in India’s north-east, will report its results on Monday. The election there is primarily a contest between regional parties, with limited bearing on national politics.
The biggest upset was in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, a mineral-rich state that pollsters had expected the opposition to retain. As of Sunday afternoon the BJP was leading in 54 of the state’s 90 seats, according to the Election Commission of India, representing a gain of 39 seats from the previous state election in 2018.
Political scientists say there is limited evidence of correlation between the state and national results. However, the result leaves Congress looking weakened at a crucial time for the historic party, which dominated Indian politics for decades until Modi’s ascent to the premiership in 2014.
Supriya Shrinate, a spokesperson for Congress, acknowledged the results in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were “deeply shocking”.
“The way we read the election and the kind of feedback we were getting from the ground was very different,” she told an Indian television channel.
The party, which is controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, had been looking to build electoral momentum after defeating the BJP in the southern state of Karnataka earlier this year. But Sunday’s results are set to leave Congress in outright control of just one state in northern India, Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayan mountains.
Analysts said this could diminish Congress’s power in the national opposition alliance, known by its acronym INDIA, which is set to meet within days to prepare its strategy for next year.
“There is a much greater need for opposition unity,” Ali said. “The Congress party has to be humble enough to accept that it does not have a [broad] support base in the north.”