India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has claimed a landslide victory in national elections that cements the Hindu nationalist leader as the country’s most formidable politician in decades.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) had been expected to easily form a governing coalition with smaller allies, but official results showed the party ahead in at least 300 seats, comfortably beyond the 272 seats required for a majority in the lower house of parliament.
Its main national opponent, Congress, was leading in just 50 constituencies and its party president, Rahul Gandhi, was turfed out of his family’s bastion seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state.
“Together we grow,” Modi said on Twitter as the results came in. “Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again!”
In a later televised address, he was critical of those who had doubted the BJP could increase its majority. “The political pundits of India have to leave behind their ideas of the past,” he said.
This year’s polls, held over seven phases starting on 11 April, have been described as a contest for the soul of India. They pitted Modi’s Hindu nationalist government against a disparate group of opposition parties including Congress, whose secular vision has defined the country for most of the past 72 years.
Votes from 542 lower-house constituencies – one fewer than usual after authorities discovered £1.3m in unaccounted cash in a south Indian party leader’s home and cancelled the poll there – started being counted at 8am local time (3.30am GMT), and results were released progressively throughout the day.
By early Thursday evening the BJP had won in close to 20 constituencies in the crucial state of West Bengal – up from just two seats in 2014 – while holding off a co-ordinated challenge from opposition parties in the Hindi heartland states of north India, where its support had been expected to fall from the high watermark of five years ago.
Now it appears 2014 was no aberration, and that Indian politics has likely entered a new era of Hindu nationalist hegemony fuelled by Modi’s extraordinary popularity.
“We are in an era where you have, once more, a central gravitational force around which Indian politics revolves,” said Milan Vaishnav, the director of the south Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think 2019 will confirm that the BJP has replaced the Congress as that.”
The emphatic victory will be greeted with dismay among some members of religious minority groups, who have voiced fears that a returned BJP government would be further emboldened to prosecute its Hindu nationalist agenda, including controversial citizenship-status checks to root out unauthorised migrants in border states.
The BJP’s president, Amit Shah, described illegal migrants in the country’s north-east as “termites” in one speech that was widely condemned by opponents.
Among the BJP candidates who won on Thursday was Pragya Singh Thakur, a Hindu nun and terrorism accused who is still facing trial for involvement in a 2008 bombing plot that killed six Muslims and injured scores of others.
Alongside nationalism and Modi’s personal magnetism, the BJP’s victory was also fuelled by a relentless, data-driven and highly disciplined style of campaigning.
The party sent up to 20 campaigners to manage the area around each polling booth, ensuring they knew their possible voters and what messages would resonate with them, an evolution from the older style of courting or inducing local chieftains to bring out their villages to vote.
“We had organisations sitting in every booth and that’s unprecedented,” said Rajat Sethi, a BJP strategist.
Modi the master
The decisions of voters in the vast country of 1.3 billion people have been driven by innumerable local concerns, caste and religion, or rumours and opinions traded over WhatsApp or cups of chai at a tea stand. But the figure of Modi has towered over the contest like no prime minister since Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.
“There is no match for Modi among the opposition parties,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “He’s running at nearly an all-time high popularity. He’s charismatic, and people still repose faith in him despite not being very happy with the economic side of the government’s performance.”
A survey released this week by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that nearly one-third of people who voted for the BJP did so in support of Modi, rather than the party or their local candidate.
Modi’s popularity had actually grown compared with 2014, when he led his party to the first majority victory in 30 years, the researchers said.