India’s election authority started counting votes on Thursday in five states’ elections that are a crucial test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before national elections in 2024, with most exit polls suggesting the BJP will retain power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with more than 230 million people.
The key northern state is governed by Yogi Adityanath, a highly divisive Hindu monk-turned-politician whose rise has been marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence.
Results from all five states – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa – are expected to be available later in the day.
The BJP has won emphatically twice on the national stage under Modi, whose brand of muscular nationalism has made him India’s most prominent politician in decades. His party already held four of these states, the only exception being Punjab, where voters went to the polls over a month ago to cast their ballots.
In Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa states, Modi’s party is expected to hold power on its own or with regional allies, the exit polls predicted.
The Congress party is expected to lose power in Punjab to the Aam Aadmi Party, which was formed in 2013 to eliminate corruption and has since governed Delhi for two consecutive terms. In the last Uttar Pradesh state election in 2017, the BJP and its allies swept the polls. The results then were widely credited to Modi’s popularity and Hindu-first politics, and he returned as prime minister for a second straight term in the 2019 general election.
The BJP has been under immense pressure to steer an economy that was sputtering even before the Covid-19 pandemic, with unemployment being a key issue among voters. The elections are also the first after a calamitous surge in infections sparked anger, with many accusing the Adityanath government of mismanagement.
In the lead-up to the polls, the party promised to spur development and wooed voters with welfare measures. But its core message banked on big-ticket projects that combine religion with infrastructure projects analysts say were aimed at pleasing the BJPs Hindu base. But uncertainties about the vote outcome have been raised by multiple defections to the main opposition in the state, the Samajwadi Party, whose secular appeal has pulled voters from a wide range of castes as well as the Muslim community.
Another question mark is whether farmers, an influential voting bloc, will rally behind the BJP. Many are still furious at Modi for pushing through agriculture laws that triggered a yearlong protest before he bowed to the pressure and revoked them in November.
This anger has set the tone for polls in nearby Punjab state, considered the grain bowl of India, and the state where the BJP is fighting to oust the opposition Congress party. The protests were led by Sikhs from Punjab, with farmers camping out on the outskirts of New Delhi for a full year before Modi walked back the laws.
The BJP has a relatively small footprint in Punjab but campaigned there with regional allies to strengthen its fledgling voter base. Punjab, where people are deeply proud of their states religious syncretism, is a test for the Hindu nationalist reach of Modi’s party, which has flourished in most of northern India since 2014.