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India’s ruling party leans on Narendra Modi’s popularity in state elections

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party is fighting a series of tough state elections this month as it tries to quash a reinvigorated opposition and shore up its political dominance ahead of national polls next year.

Five state elections are taking place in November, including head-to-head contests between the BJP and its arch-rival, the opposition Indian National Congress.

Three of the polls are in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — populous states in the northern Hindi belt that form the ruling party’s base — in addition to elections in the prosperous southern state Telangana and Mizoram in the north-east, which are ruled by regional parties. Results from all five polls, which are staggered over the month, are due on December 3.

The BJP has sought to turn the state elections into a referendum on Modi, betting that the prime minister’s popularity will neutralise challengers and set it on a strong footing to clinch a third term in the general election.

While state votes are typically led by regional leaders and contested on local issues, the prime minister has been the BJP’s star campaigner, criss-crossing the country by helicopter to fill a busy schedule of back-to-back rallies.

“People trust Modi,” said Kailash Vijayvargiya, a BJP spokesperson who is contesting a seat in Madhya Pradesh. “If [Modi] can win state elections for the BJP, naturally when he contests for prime minister again, it will have a greater impact on people . . . National elections will be an easy win.”

Five Indian states hold state elections in November

A map showing five Indian states holding state elections in November.

The most competitive states are Rajasthan, which goes to the polls on Saturday and which the BJP hopes to flip from Congress control, and Madhya Pradesh, which voted on November 17 and where the opposition is seeking to unseat Modi’s party.

An average of three opinion polls collated by brokerage Jefferies projected that the BJP would win a majority in Rajasthan, finishing with 118 of 200 seats, while giving Congress a slight edge in Madhya Pradesh.

Analysts said there was limited evidence of a correlation between state and national results. The BJP swept the three Hindi belt states that are voting this month during the general election in 2019 despite mediocre performances in local polls a year earlier.

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But Ronojoy Sen, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, said this year’s polls would be crucial for Congress to demonstrate that it could mount a credible challenge to the BJP after suffering crushing electoral defeats against Modi.

“For the Congress, it’s far more important to show that they’re still in the game,” Sen said. The prime minister, he added, “has made elections much more presidential . . . [which] works to Modi’s advantage. If the campaign revolves around his persona, there’s no one in the opposition who comes even close to his popularity.”

Congress has in recent months sought to regroup, winning power in the southern state of Karnataka and joining a national opposition alliance to put up a united front against the BJP next year.

A strong showing at the local level “would seriously disrupt this narrative of BJP marching towards the third electoral victory”, said Yogendra Yadav, an opposition political activist. “It is critical to demonstrate that there is continuity.”

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Central to both parties’ pitches to voters have been vows to expand welfare handouts. Congress, which won in Karnataka with offers including free electricity and bus rides for women, has doubled down with promises to forgive loans for farmers and subsidise fuel.

The BJP has responded in kind. Earlier this month, Modi announced at a campaign rally in Chhattisgarh that he would extend a coronavirus pandemic-era scheme providing free grain to 800mn Indians for five years. 

Analysts from Nomura said that, while the fiscal impact of the current cycle of sops was “manageable”, it could lead to “competitive populism” and push up the government’s subsidy bill.

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Modi has campaigned relentlessly in the desert state of Rajasthan, India’s largest by area, ahead of its election on Saturday. At a recent rally in Karauli, a historic city in the east of the state, tens of thousands of supporters travelled by bus and by foot to see the prime minister.

Many waited for hours before giving Modi, who flew in by helicopter, the sort of raucous celebration usually reserved for cricket matches.

In a series of lively call-and-responses, Modi told the attendees to hold up their smartphone lights in a pledge of support for his party.

“Is the farewell of the Congress certain or not?” Modi asked, drawing a resounding “yes” from the crowd.

Mukesh Sharma, a 52-year-old shopkeeper and activist for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group affiliated with the BJP, said Modi’s showmanship would win over any doubters.

“All those who had not quite made up their mind about voting for the BJP will do so after the rally,” he said. “There are so many people who have closed their shops. They’ve given up their entire day’s earnings to come and listen to Modi. We all love him from the bottom of our heart.”

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