New Delhi, India – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared victory for his BJP party in a key election contest in the western state of Gujarat, as well as in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.
As voting continued on Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on track to win 99 seats in the 182-member state house in Gujarat, crossing the 92 seat halfway mark required to rule.
“All these results reveal one thing: the country is prepared for reforms,” Modi said on Monday at the headquarters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“People have voted for development,” he added. “These are historic results for Gujarat.”
As the votes were counted, Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi conceded defeat, congratulating the BJP on the win.
“The party accepts the verdict of the people and congratulates the new governments in both states,” Gandhi said in a tweet. “I thank the people of Gujarat and Himachal with all my heart for the love they showed me.”
In 2012, the BJP won 115 of Gujarat’s 182 seats.
The BJP has governed Gujarat for the past 22 years and Modi was the chief minister of the state three times.
“Our party cannot be defeated for a hundred years,” the prime minister had said to a crowd of supporters in a rally at Morbi in Gujarat last month.
On Monday, vote counting began at 8am local time.
“[The results are] an endorsement of the kind of governance that we have provided in Gujarat for 22 year,” BJP national spokesperson Nalin Kohli told Al Jazeera.
“It is a rejection of the politics of divisiveness of caste that was tried in the campaign by the Congress party,” Kohli added.
“With the Congress party, the bar is set so low, that people are not talking about a victory but that they put up a good fight.”
People cast their ballots in two phases, the first on December 9 followed by another on December 14. Data from the Election Commission said the average turnout in the two phases was 68.41 percent.
Nearly 40 million people were eligible to vote in 182 assembly constituencies.
“Clearly the BJP’s biggest asset remains Prime Minister Modi. He extensively campaigned in the state. He spoke about development in the state but also infused the campaign with a degree of Hindu nationalism rhetoric,” said Prashant Jha, associate editor at the Hindustan Times and author of How the BJP wins.
“But at the end of the day, he made this election all about himself. He asked the voters ‘Do you trust me or not? Will you let me down?’ And the Gujarati voters decided they continued to have faith in Modi. I would think the single most important reason why the BJP has won is because of the Prime Minister’s continued popularity in the state,” he told Al Jazeera.
Modi battled caste protests, anger from the Dalit community, considered the lowest in the Hindu caste system, and disquiet from traders and smaller businesses, hit by a note ban and the chaos over the implementation of a new sales tax.
The opposition Congress’ strategy had depended upon enlisting the support of three young Hindu men – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakore.
I think the tide is turning ... In the next election we will remove them.
“[Congress] stitched up alliances with caste leaders and has actually increased its vote share and its seat share. But it has not been able to do well enough to be able to take on the prime ministers appeal and the robust organisational machine that the BJP has,” said Jha.
These three men aimed at mobilising their different castes to swing against the ruling BJP; The Patels or the Patidars with Hardik, Dalits with Jignesh, and a segment of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) with Alpesh.
The Patels, who make up 14 percent of Gujarat’s 60 million people, are agitating to be included in the quota system in India, which reserves seats for the lowest castes and the tribal communities.
Both sides led a tough campaign, with Modi addressing 34 public rallies in his home state, while Congress’ Gandhi appeared in 30.
“We were facing a formidable battle. Gujarat is the home state of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP party chief Amit Shah,where money and might and everything else was in their favour. They are in power running both the central and state government,” Sushmita Dev, Congress MP and a close associate of Congress’ Gandhi, told Al Jazeera. “I think the tide is turning … In the next election we will remove them.”
Some analysts have also criticised the prime minister for leading a “vicious” campaign, stirring up sectarian tension in muted dog-whistles.
Modi and the BJP unleashed a series of personal attacks in public rallies and on social media against opponent Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, mocking his elevation to the top job in the Congress party and questioning his Hindu credentials.
“I congratulate the Congress on their ‘Aurangzeb Raj. We don’t want Aurangzeb rule here,” the prime minister said at a rally in Valsad in Gujarat on December 4, in an apparent attempt to equate Gandhi with a medieval Muslim king during Mughal rule. The Mughals ruled most of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The ruling BJP also challenged Gandhi to publicly declare whether he followed the Hindu faith after a controversy broke out over a temple visit where he was reportedly listed as a ‘non-Hindu’ in the temple register.
Modi also attempted to appease his conservative Hindu supporters who are pushing for the construction of a Hindu temple where a mosque was destroyed by a mob led by BJP leaders in 1992 in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
At an election rally, he asked the Congress party to “clarify whether you are advocates of a Ram temple or a Babri mosque”.
The demolition of the mosque had sparked some of the deadliest riots in India’s independent history and deepened religious divisions.
Addressing an election rally in Palanpur, Modi even suggested that rival Pakistan was trying to influence the Gujarat elections. He claimed that opposition Congress leaders held a “secret meeting” with Pakistan officials on December 6.
— ANI (@ANI) December 18, 2017
Monday’s results showed the state of Gujarat overwhelmingly approves of Modi’s performance and believes the state is on the right track.
A clutch of key state elections next year will further shed light on what the battleground will look like in 2019.
The state of Gujarat remains a defining part of Modi’s political life. The state still bears the scars of sectarian bloodletting 15 years ago.
In 2002, Gujarat witnessed a series of riots in which more than 1,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims, at a time when Modi was chief minister. His critics have accused him of not doing enough to stop the riots. Modi has always denied any wrongdoing.
The BJP is also set to form the government in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where it is leading in 43 of the 68 seats for which leads are available. The Congress is leading in 21 seats.
Follow Zeenat Saberin on Twitter: @SaberinZe