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Modi's BJP Party Wins Heart Of Indian Voters

Supporters of India's Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate election results outside the party headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday.
Chandan Khanna
AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of India's Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate election results outside the party headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday.

Updated at 9 a.m. ET Monday

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is calling for a "New India" in the wake of his party's unprecedented showing in voting in the country's biggest, most important battleground state. Results from five states electing legislative assemblies were announced over the weekend.

Young Indians who want a more prosperous country in their lifetime especially seized on Narendra Modi to deliver it.

Headlines declared Modi "King of the Heartland," a reference to his landslide win in the state of Uttar Pradesh, or UP, next door to New Delhi. Modi's party also swept the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

But it is the vast UP with its plains that stretch to Nepal that resonates the loudest. With Modi's personal appeal, his party secured 80 percent of the 403 seats up for grabs in the statehouse.

Poor and agricultural, Uttar Pradesh is emblematic of India, suffering power shortages, poor education, and challenged sanitation. All of the country's fault lines run thru the UP — caste, class, communal divisions.

Modi's BJP engineered the victory in part by fielding candidates who spring from "Other Backward Classes," a term used by the Indian government to classify castes that are socially and educationally disadvantaged. The party, with its strong Hindu base, did not draw a single member from the UP's sizeable Muslim community.

Modi captured the public imagination, in the words of the Asian Age newspaper, barnstorming the state "as though the devil was on his heels," promising to lift up its 220 million people.

Adding to the drama of India's election was the cliffhanger outcome of the country's so-called demonetization. In a political gamble, Modi last year ordered all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes pulled from circulation, a bid to force anyone who held large stashes of unreported wealth to come clean. The order removed most of India's cash from the economy, occasioning a massive money shortage. The election was seen as a referendum on Modi's decision. The efficacy of the exercise is still unclear, but Modi tapped into simmering class anger over corruption on the part of the illicit rich, and voters evidently agreed that a crackdown was in order.

Modi had energized voters evoking his own poverty-stricken beginnings. Addressing party workers Sunday night, the prime minister made uplifting the poor the cornerstone of the "New India," as the country approaches its 75 th anniversary of independence in 2022. They want the opportunity to work, not collect dole, he said. "The poor turning out in large numbers for development presents the image of a New India," he said.

The win in the UP improves the math for Modi's party in the Upper House of Parliament. The members are elected from the state assemblies, and the UP has 31 members in the 245-seat body.

With this new mandate, Modi likely will continue to go after financial corruption. He will also be able pursue other reform such as greater tax compliance.

Modi's BJP also outflanked the opposition and cobbled enough support from smaller parties to form governments in the western state of Goa and northeastern state of Manipur, which saw the party surge for the first time.

The large northern state of Punjab went resoundingly anti-incumbent, handing the state to the opposition Congress Party, run by the dynasty of the Gandhi family.

Writing on the BJP's dominance over the opposition, commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta said, "Modi has managed to outmanoeuvere them on every faultline. ... He has managed to occupy the pro-poor narrative that parties like the Congress ... thought was their natural territory."

The sweeping victory in Uttar Pradesh gives Modi an edge on a weakened opposition ahead of the national election in 2019, when he's expected to seek a second term.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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