By GEETA ANAND
MARCH 11, 2017
Photo: In New Delhi, supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party celebrated its win in the state of Uttar Pradesh on Saturday. The vote was seen as a referendum on the prime minister. Credit Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press
NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his party to a landslide victory in India’s largest state on Saturday, consolidating his power and putting him in a strong position to win re-election in 2019.
The scale of the victory in Uttar Pradesh’s legislative elections was all the more stunning because it followed Mr. Modi’s politically risky decision to eliminate most of India’s cash. The vote was seen as a referendum on the prime minister, who campaigned vigorously in recent days in Uttar Pradesh, which, with a population of more than 200 million, would be the world’s sixth largest country if it were independent.
“This is a stupendous achievement,” said Ashok Malik, a fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, based in New Delhi. “Here you had a prime minister making himself the face of the election in the absence of a local leader and stitching together a coalition across the state.”
The margin of victory in Uttar Pradesh was the largest seen by any party in more than 30 years. It gives Mr. Modi a significant advantage in the national elections in 2019, which in turn would bring him closer to his long-term goal of becoming a leader of historic significance, steering India away from its more socialist, secular past.
Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, commonly called the B.J.P., also won at least one of four other state elections in which ballots were being counted on Saturday. The weakening India National Congress party, which once dominated the nation’s politics, won in Punjab, a powerful farming state, and remained in contention in two smaller states, showing that it was still a factor nationally, though less so than in years past.
The Aam Aadmi Party, born of the anticorruption movement that has arisen in India in recent years, failed to win any state, suggesting that it was not yet ready to take over from the Congress party as the main opposition to Mr. Modi.
Mr. Modi said on Twitter that his party’s victories were “humbling and overwhelming.”
In Uttar Pradesh, the Election Commission of India said the Bharatiya Janata Party had won or was leading in voting for 308 of the 403 seats in the state legislature, decimating the last-minute anti-Modi coalition cobbled together by Congress and the local governing party, the Samajwadi Party. By Saturday afternoon, that coalition had garnered only 57 seats.
The coalition had appeared to be gaining steam after it was formed early this year, led by the dynamic, relatively young leader of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, 43, whose father founded the party and presided over it for decades.
That party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, commonly known as the B.S.P., have taken turns governing Uttar Pradesh in recent decades, in each case putting together coalitions that consisted mainly of the party leader’s caste group along with Muslims. But on Saturday afternoon, the B.S.P., led by Kumari Mayawati, a leader of the Dalit caste, won or was leading in only 20 seats, the election commission said.
The scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory suggested that it had bridged such caste allegiances, some experts said, although it had yet to cross religious lines to attract large numbers of Muslims. While Mr. Modi has largely steered clear of divisive language on religion as prime minister, his party has a Hindu nationalist philosophy, and he was accused of complicity in anti-Muslim violence as the leader of his home state of Gujarat.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in the history of India,” Jitendra Singh, a minister of state in Mr. Modi’s office, told the television station Times Now. “The Indian voter has learned to rise above caste and creed and vote for development and the future of India.”
In fact, although Mr. Modi won the 2014 national elections on a platform of jobs and development, his economic record is mixed. He has lured more foreign investment and is close to achieving a long-delayed tax overhaul, but new job creation has been slow and domestic private investment remains stagnant.
The International Monetary Fund this year cut its projected growth rate for India by one percentage point, to 6.6 percent, in large part because of Mr. Modi’s sudden ban on the country’s largest currency notes in November.
Saturday’s results come less than four months after Mr. Modi’s Nov. 8 announcement that India’s largest notes, which made up 86 percent of the currency, would be banned starting the next day in a bid to fight corruption. A cash shortfall persisted for weeks as the government rushed to print enough new notes to replace the banned ones, slowing many of the country’s cash-based businesses and leaving many poor people struggling to make ends meet.
As the cash crunch persisted, with millions waiting in line for notes, Mr. Modi faced criticism that his policy had hurt lower-income people, and many predicted that voters would punish him at the polls.
But his big win in Uttar Pradesh — coupled with victory in another state, Uttarakhand, and gains in the eastern state of Manipur, where his party had not been a contender in the recent past — suggests that despite the pain the currency ban caused, voters believed Mr. Modi when he said it was needed to reduce corruption, some experts said.
“The narrative became less about whether it was right or wrong on economics, but more about the political narrative, the way Modi was able to shape it,” said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations specializing in India at King’s College in London.
“He said, ‘I am a crusader against corruption, and you have to rise above your mundane economic realities and support me.’ And people did,” Mr. Pant said.
Votes were still being counted in the smaller states of Goa and Manipur on Saturday afternoon, and the margins were so close that it was not clear who would form the state governments.
Experts said Mr. Modi’s win in Uttar Pradesh meant his party would be able to take control of the upper house of India’s Parliament next year. They expected him to have a freer hand in making the economic policy overhauls that he has long sought to spur development, including changes in the law to make it easier for companies to acquire farmland and to fire workers.
But many experts cautioned that it was unlikely Mr. Modi would make major changes before the 2019 election. When he previously tried to ease land acquisition rules, he found himself pilloried as the “suit boot” prime minister, or guardian of the corporate class, the experts noted.
“He’ll have the space, but he’ll also be concerned about re-election,” Mr. Malik said. The prime minister may tinker with the laws, perhaps allowing states to change some labor laws to attract industry, but “he’s not suddenly going to shift gears in terms of policies,” Mr. Malik said.