Modi's party retains Indian mega-state

Modi's party retains Indian mega-state

Supporters of India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate partial vote counts for the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections
Supporters of India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate partial vote counts for the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections

LUCKNOW (INDIA) - A firebrand monk and poster boy of Hindu nationalism retained power in India's most populous state Thursday, in a triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party.

Partial results gave the BJP 202 seats, a majority in the Uttar Pradesh state parliament, the election commission website showed. The part was also leading in 53 of the 99 still to declare.

The victory strengthens local BJP chief Yogi Adityanath's chances of eventually succeeding Modi as an even more divisive prime minister of the world's largest democracy.

The BJP is the first party since 1985 to retain power in the state of more than 200 million people, albeit with a reduced majority.

It was a "historic victory", Adityanath tweeted after addressing celebrating supporters in state capital Lucknow, attributing it to "the good governance, security, nationalism and the heartwarming guidance of respected PM Narendra Modi".

The BJP, helped by its deep pockets and influence on social media -- including through misinformation, according to AFP and other fact-checking organisations -- also held the other three states where it was the incumbent.

In the last of the five polls being held, Punjab, the opposition Congress -- the only other pan-national party -- was crushed by the left-leaning Aam Aadmi Party in a humiliating defeat.

At the BJP national headquarters in New Delhi, Modi said pundits would proclaim the results had "sealed the fate" of the next general election, due in 2024.

- 'Darker shade of saffron' -

Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, is India's biggest state-level political prize, sending the most MPs to the national parliament.

Adityanath's sectarian rhetoric -- coupled with a hardline approach on crime and claims of economic performance in one of India's poorest states -- proved a vote winner, experts said.

"Just like there are Islamic countries and Buddhist countries, we should become a Hindu country," BJP supporter Neera Sinha Varsha told AFP in Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow.

During the campaign, Adityanath railed against "anti-nationals" -- seen as a euphemism for Muslims who make up around one-fifth of the northern state's population.

News network The Wire analysed Adityanath's public speeches and found 100 distinct instances of "patterns of straightforward hate speech, anti-Muslim dog-whistling... and a chilling focus on Hindu supremacist rhetoric".

"Yogi has positioned himself as a darker shade of saffron (the colour of Hinduism) than Modi in the last five years," said journalist and Modi biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

The victory is a "big endorsement of the kind of aggressive and hard-nosed politics that he has been pursuing", he told AFP.

- 'Biggest winner' -

Adityanath, 49, rose from humble beginnings to become head priest of an important Hindu temple and founded a vigilante youth group.

Its volunteers regularly rough up Muslims and low-caste Dalits accused of slaughtering cows -- sacred to Hindus -- or of seeking to seduce women from India's majority religion.

After coming to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, his administration brought in a law to ban "love jihad" -- Muslims marrying Hindus to convert them -- and has targeted journalists and others with what critics call spurious "sedition" charges.

Media reports say more than 100 alleged criminals -- most of them Muslims or Dalits -- have been victims of extra-judicial police killings, a charge Adityanath denies.

And his government is widely seen as having bungled its response to Covid-19, including by concealing the real death toll.

But he won his own seat in Gorakhpur with more than 66 percent of the vote.

Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center tweeted that Adityanath "may be the biggest winner" from the polls.

"The BJP's performance in UP will likely strengthen his case within the party brass to be viewed as the eventual successor to Narendra Modi," he added.

Congress's humiliation in Punjab further erodes the claim of the Gandhi dynasty's once-mighty party to be the only national alternative to the BJP.

The victor in Punjab, the AAP, already runs the capital New Delhi and hopes to supplant Congress as the second-biggest party in other upcoming state elections.

"This revolution first happened in Delhi, now it has happened in Punjab and next it will happen in the rest of the country," AAP head and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said.

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