The Hindu nationalist party of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has won a major victory in a key state election, boosting his odds of success at next year’s general election and emboldening his at-times divisive policy agenda.
Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was leading with 105 seats in Karnataka compared to the opposition Congress’s 75, according to the latest Election Commission of India figures.
Both the prime minister and the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have personally campaigned in recent weeks in Karnataka, a state with a population roughly equivalent to that of France.
Critics accused Mr Modi of using divisive rhetoric to encourage Hindus to turn out and vote for the BJP, while Mr Gandhi was said to have failed to mobilise a local Congress party that had not done much wrong as incumbents in the state.
Late on Tuesday, with the last votes being counted, Congress made a last-ditch bid to form a coalition with a regional party that placed third. Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala said the pair in coalition held a “clear majority” of the state’s 225 seats.
But the more likely scenario would see the state governor offer the BJP the first chance to form a government, as the best-performing single party.
The result “certainly bodes well” for Mr Modi in 2019, said Ajay Mehra, a political science lecturer at Delhi University. It gives the BJP control of 22 out of the country’s 29 states – a record number, though the total number of states has grown over the years.
“Every victory is significant, and if you look at the map of the country, every dot turning saffron [the colour of BJP] is signifiant at this stage,” Mr Mehra told The Independent.
The Karnataka vote is the first in a number of important state elections this year, and some commentators suggested the wave of Hindu nationalist sentiment that bore Mr Modi to power in 2014 might already have broken, amid criticism over an overnight ban on high-value banknotes in 2016 and an unpopular nationwide sales tax.
But on the best turnout for a state election since the 1950s, that seems not to be the case, and Tuesday’s result makes for grim reading for Congress supporters.
“There are lots of middle class Indians who feel each victory for the BJP is making them bolder,” said Mr Mehra. “There is the impression that it is emboldening them to do things they should not be doing – dividing society along religious lines.”
For Mr Modi’s grassroots supporters, his ability to reach beyond the educated middle classes is one of his strongest appeals. And to do that, Mr Mehra said, the BJP has shown an extraordinary ability to organise and mobilise its political activists to reach into every home.
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The Karnataka vote has been described in some reports as India’s first “WhatsApp election”, and while it is impossible to say that social media won the day for the BJP, it certainly played its part.
Both Congress and the BJP claimed to have created more than 20,000 WhatsApp groups dedicated to discussing the election in the state, though Mr Modi’s party is generally considered to be more effective as an earlier adopter of social media electioneering.
Those WhatsApp groups have, according to various reports, carried a mixture of inflammatory and false messaging, often designed to divide communities. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said in a statement to The Washington Post that it was “stepping up” its efforts to tackle such usage ahead of the 2019 election.
Between now and the general election, Mr Modi’s newfound confidence may manifest itself in new economic reforms. The World Bank has called on India to revamp its labour sector and change the rules around land acquisition, things the prime minister has previously been wary of doing.
“The result provides some reassurance to the BJP that its popularity remains intact,” Shilan Shah, a senior India economist at Capital Economics, told Reuters. “That could embolden the government to pursue reforms in future, including loosening foreign direct investment restrictions and moves towards privatisation.”
And for Congress, the result will raise serious questions about the position of Mr Gandhi, the fifth generation of politicians from the famous Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
“His authority is weakened and it is difficult for the Congress now to stake a claim on the leadership of the opposition,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
Mr Mehra’s assessment for the party as a whole was bleak. “If they cannot win these elections, in spite of so much anti-government feeling, then Congress appears to be shutting up shop,” he said.
Party spokesman Sanjay Jha admitted Congress was “disappointed” by the result but defended Mr Gandhi’s campaigning. “He raised issues that mattered, unlike PM Modi, who indulged in hollow rhetoric,” he said.