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NEW DELHI/LUCKNOW/CHANDIGARH/DEHRADUN/PANJIM : The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained power in four states, including India’s most politically significant Uttar Pradesh, and the Aam Aadmi Party swept Punjab, according to results of state elections declared on Thursday. The outcome strengthens the BJP’s standing ahead of the 2024 national elections and redefines the Opposition space.

The BJP won UP with ease, with 256 of the 403 assembly seats and 41.3% vote share (as of 10.35pm), almost 5 percentage points higher than its vote share in 2017 on the party’s so-called double-engine platform (the same party in the Centre and the state, helping the cause of development). However, it is clear that the engines powering its victory are the same—Hindutva, and efficiently run welfare schemes—responsible for its electoral success in the most recent election in the state, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

“Adhesion for the style and substance of politics that the BJP incarnates, a broad appeal based on a combination of strongman politics, religious, communal and populist appeal. This model helped the BJP perform electorally despite deep economic woes. One can expect other chief ministers to emulate it. The BJP can only be challenged by parties that propose counter-narratives that appeal to broad segments of the electorate," said Gilles Verniers, assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

The UP win is a boost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the party’s campaigner-in-chief, and also for incumbent chief minister Yogi Adityanath who becomes the first CM of the state in 30 years to return to power after completing a full term in office. The Samajwadi Party (SP), its main rival in a bipolar contest, improved its 2017 performance, winning 110 seats to 47 then, and reaching the highest vote share it ever has in the state (32%), but the fact that it came second-best, and by a bit, is perhaps an indication of the limits of Mandal politics in a redefined electoral landscape.

The win in UP and the party’s success in retaining all four states where it was in power (UP, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur) is the best possible outcome of this round of elections for the BJP—with not even party insiders being able to predict the scale of victories, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Clearly, the party has been able to manage anti-incumbency a lot better than it was expected to (this is likely the case in Uttarakhand and Goa), or there has been no anti-incumbency at all (Uttar Pradesh and Manipur).

In Manipur, where it was in power in partnership with the National Peoples Party (NPP) and the Naga Peoples Front, but contested separately, the BJP actually improved its position, winning 32 of the 60 seats in the assembly compared to the 21 seats it held in the outgoing one. It will now form the government in partnership with the NPP, which won 7 seats and the NPF, which won 5.

The only state the BJP did not win was the one where it was neither in power nor in the running, Punjab. The state saw a wave in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party, which won 92 of the 117 seats in the assembly with a 42% vote share. The win makes the Arvind Kejriwal-led party the only one other than the BJP and the Congress to be in power in more than one region and also gives it a full-fledged state to rule (with control of the police force).

Kejriwal termed his party’s massive victory in Punjab a “big revolution". “Big people in politics have been dislodged today. Sukhbir Singh Badal lost. Captain Amarinder Singh lost, (chief minister Charanjit Singh) Channi lost, Prakash Singh Badal lost, Navjot Singh Sidhu lost, and (Bikram Singh)Majithia too lost. Bhagat Singh once said if we don’t change the system after the British leave, nothing will happen. Sadly, in the last 75 years, these parties and leaders had the same British system. They were looting the country… AAP has changed this system in the last seven years and showcased the politics of honesty. The dreams of B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh have started to come true," he said in a speech after the results were announced.

AAP’s win will also, over the coming months, reshape the national opposition to the BJP, with parties such as the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress and the K. Chandrashekar Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samiti, already working on building a grouping of parties that excludes the Congress.

The Congress’s performance in the elections did nothing to help it address the perception, especially among other political parties that are part of the larger national opposition, that it is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The party won just two seats in Uttar Pradesh, where it was anyway expected to do poorly, and also badly lost Punjab (where it won 18 of 117 seats) and Uttarakhand (19 of 70). Not too long ago, the party was expected to win both Punjab and Uttarakhand, but its effort to tackle anti-incumbency in the first (by messily changing its chief minister) failed, even as it showed its inability to leverage anti-incumbency against the Uttarakhand and Goa governments (both BJP) to its advantage.

Last time, the Congress’s inability to manage the post-poll scenario saw it lose an opportunity to form governments in Goa and Manipur (it was the single largest party in both). The party claimed to be prepared this time in both states (and also in Uttarakhand), but the BJP ended up with a clear majority in Uttarakhand and Manipur (with its allies), and also won 20 of the 40 seats in Goa, showing, yet again, its ability to manage anti-incumbency better. The party said it would form the government in the state with the support of independents. Ahead of this round of assembly polls, many analysts said it was a virtual semi-final to the 2024 national elections (as indeed, any round of state elections that includes polls in UP, India’s most populous and politically significant state, should be).

If that was the case, the BJP goes into 2024 as the strong favourite.

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