A firebrand monk and poster boy of Hindu nationalism was set to retain power in India’s most populous state, partial vote counts showed on Thursday, in a triumph for prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party.
The likely victory in Uttar Pradesh also 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.
Meanwhile, Congress’s projected humiliating defeat in Punjab further erodes the claim of the Gandhi dynasty’s once-mighty party to be the only national alternative to the BJP ahead of the next general election due in 2024.
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.
Media projections indicated the Bharatiya Janata Party won a comfortable if reduced majority in the state of more than 200 million people — making it the first party to retain power there since 1985.
The BJP, helped by its deep pockets and influence on social media — including through misinformation, according to AFP and other fact-checking organisations—also appeared to have 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 on course for a humiliating defeat to the left-leaning Aam Aadmi Party.
‘Just like there are Islamic countries and Buddhist countries, we should become a Hindu country,’ BJP supporter Neera Sinha Varsha said in Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow.
Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil, is India’s biggest state political prize, sending the most MPs to the national parliament.
Adityanath’s sectarian rhetoric — coupled with a hard-line approach on crime and claims of economic performance in one of India’s poorest states — has proved a vote winner, experts said.
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 his 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 said.
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.