By Jaishree Balasubramanian
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party lost power through polls in three key agrarian states, according to official results out Wednesday, dealing his government its worst defeat since 2014 and boosting the opposition’s political fortunes ahead of next year’s general election.
Mounting loans owed by farmers, low prices for farm produce, lingering anger over the BJP government’s decision to ban high-denomination currency notes in 2016, and a lack of new jobs were among issues that led to the ruling party’s unseating in state assembly polls in the three northern states, political observers said.
The trio of Hindi-speaking states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – have often been referred to as bellwether states for parliamentary elections, which are next expected in April or May. During state assembly elections in 2013, a majority of voters in all three states picked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a precursor to the party’s massive victory in the 2014 general election that brought Modi to power.
“The BJP faced anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction of the voters on falling farm prices, lack of adequate employment opportunities and a general drift in policies in the rural areas,” analyst Anil Wadhwa told BenarNews.
“State election results may not affect the general elections in 2019, where the voter will look for political stability and strong leadership,” cautioned Wadhwa, who is a distinguished fellow at the Vivekananda International Center, an Indian think tank. “On that score, the BJP May perform better.”
According to results announced by the country’s Election Commission on Wednesday, the opposition Congress party took over control of the state assemblies from the BJP in all three states.
Congress was declared the winner in the Chattisgarh polls, but fell short of a state assembly majority in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. However, regional parties, which had previously opposed Congress, offered the party support, allowing India’s main opposition party to obtain majorities in those two states’ assemblies.
Assembly elections were also held in the southern state of Telengana and northeastern state of Mizoram. In both these states, regional parties won the polls.
A BJP lawmaker, Sanjay Kakade, said the party had focused its election campaign on partisan themes like building a Hindu temple at a disputed site in Ayodhya city claimed by both Muslims and Hindus.
“We forgot the issue of development that prime minister Modi took up in 2014,” newspapers quoted him as saying.
Online newspaper Scroll noted that the “BJP cannot afford to ignore the acute agrarian distress that afflicts state after state, prompting thousands of farmers to march on the capital, demanding redress.”
“Across Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh farmers spoke of low minimum support prices, rising input costs and losses that have built year on year,” the report said.
Prime minister Modi tweeted on Tuesday that “we accept the people’s mandate with humility” as he congratulated the Congress Party.
BJP’s setback in regional polls could boost the political career of Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old president of the Congress Party whose great grandfather, grandmother and father were all prime ministers.
He took over as party chief from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, last year.
On Tuesday evening, on the eve of the official announcement of poll results and as his party was out ahead, Rahul Gandhi told reporters that “frankly, Narendra Modi taught me the lesson what not to do.”
One of India’s biggest newspapers, the Indian Express, said that mere “asset creation” by the ruling BJP through the building of roads, houses, and toilets, or providing liquefied petroleum gas, electricity and broadband connectivity was not enough for rural voters.
“Incomes not rising, due to low crop prices and stagnating wages, has more than offset any asset gains in the recent period, which also probably explains the party’s heavy losses in the three states it ruled,” the newspaper said.