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Politics

Modi's party retains control of India's key battleground state

BJP's comfortable victory in Uttar Pradesh boosts prospects in 2024 national polls

A BJP supporter displays signs featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in Lucknow, India, on March 10.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party on Thursday scored a major election win in India's most populous and bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh, potentially setting the tone for the 2024 national election, in which it will seek a third consecutive five-year term.

Uttar Pradesh -- home to over 200 million people and currently governed by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party -- along with four other Indian states, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, held staggered polls between Feb. 10 and March 7.

Vote counting began Thursday morning, and as of 11:15 p.m. local time the BJP and allies had won 264 seats and were leading in nine others out of a total of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh's assembly, according to the Election Commission of India.

"This is a day to celebrate democracy," Modi said addressing jubilant party workers at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, amid chants of his name by supporters who also shouted slogans in Hindi like "Modi makes it possible."

"I'm thankful to the voters, especially the women and youth," Modi said. "These results put a strong seal [of approval] to the BJP's pro-poor and proactive governance," he said.

The BJP's performance under Modi and its firebrand, saffron-clad Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, is significant coming against the backdrop of high unemployment, price rises, and criticism of the central government's handling of COVID-19 surge in April and May last year. Its victory also comes despite protests against three controversial farm laws that were repealed in November.

The BJP won over 300 seats in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections. It is the first time since 1985 that a party has retained its majority in the state.

Uttar Pradesh as it is seen as a gateway to power in the national government in New Delhi. The BJP victory there helps its chances of winning the 2024 national elections, as the state accounts for 80 of the 540-plus parliamentary seats that will be contested.

The BJP, which often plays to its Hindu base, fended off a strong challenge by a regional opposition alliance comprised of the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh. Before the vote count, all exit polls had predicted the BJP winning a comfortable majority.

In Uttarakhand and Manipur, the BJP is set to form a government for a second straight five-year term after winning a clear majority in both states. It has also emerged as the single largest party in Goa, where it is seeking a third consecutive term in power.

In the Sikh-majority state of Punjab, where the BJP is almost a non-player, the Aam Aadmi Party -- a relative newcomer that heads the local government in the national capital territory of Delhi -- has emerged victorious, toppling the incumbent Indian National Congress in a landslide.

"Humbly accept the people's verdict," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted after his party's crushing defeat in all five states. "We will learn from this and keep working for the interests of the people of India."

The Congress party, the country's main opposition, had been the dominate party in India for over 50 years since the nation's independence from British rule in 1947 but is now struggling to stay relevant amid the rise of the BJP and emergence of regional parties.

During campaign rallies, the BJP highlighted the improved law-and-order situation in Uttar Pradesh and the state's welfare schemes, such as free food grains to the poor during the pandemic.

"Under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, four states of the country are going to see the [return of the] BJP government," Yogi, 49, a Hindu monk who some see as a potential successor to the 71-year-old Modi, said addressing supporters at the BJP headquarters in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow. "Modi's model of development and good governance has once again received people's blessings."

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