Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vindicated. In the official vote tallies out March 11 for a set of five critical state elections, his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won key victories. The most important of these was held in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where BJP secured 325 out of 403 seats. This marked a massive defeat for the Samajwadi Party, which allied with BJP competitor Indian National Congress and won only 54 seats. The BJP also swept the state of Uttarakhand, with 56 out of 70 seats and one seat outstanding but favoring BJP. The states of Manipur, Punjab and Goa also went to the polls.
In the run-up to these massive elections, Modi made a number of risky moves to shore up his support base. In September, he launched a surgical military strike into Pakistan-administered Kashmir in response to a cross-border attack. The prime minister also unrolled his massive demonetization scheme in November in an attempt to emphasize his pro-poor, anti-corruption bonafides.
The Uttar Pradesh win redeems the 2015 BJP defeats in elections held in Delhi and in Bihar, India's third most populous state. It also marked a turning point for the Indian National Congress, which dominated the national and state political scenes for decades in coalition with local parties. Modi's demonetization scheme was seen as a potential vulnerability, but Modi's brand of charisma and nationalism — and strong economic growth numbers — managed to overwhelm his opponents' criticisms. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi allied with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in an attempt to defeat BJP but failed. Congress won three narrow victories: In Punjab, it won 77 out of 117 seats, in Goa it won 19 seats to the BJP's 14 and in Manipur it won 28 seats to beat out the BJP's 21. These wins will do little to slow the Congress party's downward slide.
The BJP will now form a government in Uttar Pradesh for the first time in 15 years. The state will begin a yearslong process that will eventually bring numerous BJP representatives to the upper house of India's parliament, which is entirely stocked with lawmakers elected from state assemblies. The BJP holds a majority in the lower house but not in the upper. This has made it difficult for Modi to pursue his ambitious agenda of land, labor and tax reforms.
Uttar Pradesh, as India's most populous state, also paves the way for a BJP victory in 2019 nationwide elections. Rahul Gandhi is set to become the Indian National Congress' next party president but the failure of his Uttar Pradesh strategy may put this in jeopardy. Modi now has the clear upper hand. Uttar Pradesh was more than anything a plebiscite on the prime minister himself — the BJP did not even field a single chief minister candidate and relied on Modi's brand appeal and charisma. And, in spite of Modi's lackluster jobs performance, it appears now that Indian voters are willing to give him the time to pursue reform — at least until 2019.