India’s right-wing ruling party has scored a resounding victory in regional elections, wresting control of key states in a major boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is set to bid for a third term in national elections in May.
In the elections concluded on Sunday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) snatched Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh states from the opposition Indian National Congress party and registered a record fifth term in central Madhya Pradesh.
The defeat of the secular Congress party in the three states – which send 62 members to the national parliament – is a bellwether that dashes its hopes of coming back to power at the national level. Experts say the grand old party, which led India’s independence struggle against the British colonial power, needs to recalibrate its strategy as Modi has successfully pushed Hindu nationalism to the centre of Indian politics.
The Congress party, however, managed to win in the southern Telangana state, home to the IT hub of Hyderabad, highlighting the north-south divide. The party also governs Karnataka state – home to Bengaluru city, known as India’s Silicon Valley. The BJP has still a limited electoral presence in the country’s relatively more prosperous southern states.
Here are the four reasons attributed to the BJP’s latest victory:
Welfare schemes and their publicity
The BJP, which was seen as pro-business and pro-urban party during its initial years, has successfully expanded its base. It has launched numerous welfare schemes to burnish its pro-poor credentials.
Many of the schemes such as cash transfers, free rations and affordable gas cylinders launched by the central government led by Modi have been popular with voters amid high unemployment, an ailing agriculture sector and rising inequality.
Modi boasted his government’s efforts to help the poor during his campaign. The government claims more than 800 million people are provided with free rations, highlighting skewed economic growth in the world’s most populous nation.
The BJP ascended to the national political scene in the early 1990s on the back of a movement to build a temple for the Ram deity in place of a medieval-era Babri mosque, which was demolished by Hindu groups allied with the party in 1992. India’s top court in 2019 allowed the construction of the temple in Ayodhya located in the northern Uttar Pradesh state.
In Madhya Pradesh state, where the BJP victory was enormous, a cash transfer scheme targeting women seems to have attracted female voters to the party, despite a high crime rate against women.
Observers have also attributed Congress’s defeat to their own complacency, and their failure to connect with voters despite running similar welfare schemes at a state level.
‘Modi magic’ and Hindu-first politics
Modi’s personal appeal – in the words of local media “Modi magic” – towers over the BJP. The 73-year-old leader remains hugely popular with 93 million followers on X, and he has exploited his foreign policy successes to his advantage.
Under Modi, New Delhi’s ties with the United States and other Western nations have been improved markedly amid the West’s policy to counter China’s rise. India, at the same time, has also projected itself as the leader of the Global South.
The Indian prime minister has also been pushing India as a manufacturing hub amid a Western push to find alternative supply chains.
The BJP also used the January 2024 inauguration of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya to its advantage. Modi launched its construction in 2020, pandering to the Hindu-nationalist sentiment in the country.
“The results in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan indicate that the people of India are firmly with politics of good governance and development … ,” Modi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The opposition has accused Modi of indulging in anti-Muslim dog whistles and providing immunity to far-right Hindu groups involved in attacks on Muslims and other minorities. India – an officially secular nation – has seen a rise in anti-Muslim violence since Modi came to power in 2014. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched on mere suspicion of consuming beef or transporting cows, considered sacred among a large section of Hindus.
Modi and the BJP have denied the charges, saying they do not discriminate between Indians based on caste and faith.
Electoral funding and scale of campaigning
The BJP has been able to cast a wide net of campaign publicity owing to its high electoral funding.
Pro-democracy activists, however, have criticised a legal mechanism for political funding, known as electoral bonds, which allows parties to keep the name of their donors hidden from the public.
Of all the political funding between 2017-2022, half was received through electoral bonds. The BJP received more than 57 percent of its funding via electoral bonds – most of its sources remain opaque.
The Congress party, which was able to obtain only 10 percent of the total political funding, has also questioned the fairness of the electoral bond system, with the BJP receiving three times as many electoral bond funds as all other political parties combined.
The Hindu nationalist party deployed its funds to keep its leader in the spotlight in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote. Modi addressed 14 rallies and took out two roadshows in Rajasthan, and also spoke at five rallies in Chhattisgarh.
The BJP is comparatively more tech savvy and adopted social media earlier than other parties. It has helped the party build a significant following online. But the party has also been accused of using its big war chest to indulge in negative propaganda, particularly targeting Muslims.
Lack of opposition unity
The Congress party’s loss is also being attributed to factionalism and a failure to forge alliances with like-minded secular parties. The Congress leadership has also been accused of being arrogant and out of touch with reality on the ground.
Experts say the Congress party needs to rejig its leadership, bringing young faces to the forefront, if it wants to reverse its electoral fortune. In the past 10 years, the party has been pushed to the margins of Indian politics by the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi, his sister Priyanka Gandhi and their mother Sonia Gandhi, remain the most recognisable faces of the party. The current party president, Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit, has worked under the shadow of the Gandhi dynasty – three members of whom have been prime ministers.