India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has scored a landslide victory in the western state of Gujarat, election results showed on Thursday, in a strong performance ahead of the general elections due in 2024.
The Hindu nationalist BJP retained its 27-year control of Gujarat – the home state of Modi – but lost power in northern Himachal Pradesh state to the main opposition, the Congress Party.
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The BJP has not lost state assembly elections in Gujarat, a western industrial state, since 1995. Modi was Gujarat’s top elected official for 13 years before becoming prime minister in 2014.
Modi has fashioned himself as a champion of Hindu causes after the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots – one of the worst outbreaks of religious violence since India’s independence in 1947. Rights groups say nearly 2,000 people – most of them Muslims – were killed and dozens of women were raped that year following the burning of a passenger train carrying a large number of Hindu pilgrims.
The BJP has been accused of using religious polarisation to gain Hindu votes. The Modi government facilitated the release of Hindus convicted of gang rape during the 2002 riots just ahead of the state elections.
In multiple reports in Indian media, people in the state expressed that rising inflation and unemployment were issues in the state, but Modi’s towering personality and the anti-Muslim sentiment probably coloured their voting decision.
‘Brazen articulation of Hindu votes’
Ajay Gudavarthy, who teaches political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that the BJP’s comfortable win in Gujarat shows a deeper consolidation of the Hindu vote.
Gudavarthy said, “There is now a brazen articulation of Hindu votes for the BJP” across the country.
“Even popular leaders from the opposition are losing once the Hindu card is coming to play. One must concede that the [Hindu] sentiment is very deep,” he said.
With vote counting continuing into Thursday, India’s Election Commission said the BJP had won 142 out of the 182 seats in the state assembly and was leading in 14 other constituencies. The rival Congress Party had won 16 and was leading in another constituency, while a new group, the Aam Admi Party, won five seats.
The Congress Party wrested power from the BJP in Himachal Pradesh state, where it had won 39 out of 68 seats and was leading in another constituency, against the BJP’s 19 seats, the Election Commission said.
The BJP also lost a key election on Wednesday for control of the municipal corporation in the capital city of New Delhi to the regional Aam Admi Party, after leading it for 15 straight years, the commission said.
Voting took place in Gujarat on December 1 and 5, and in Himachal on November 12.
Vote counting began on Thursday morning, and full results are expected later in the day.
Experts say the stunning victory in the western state would bolster the BJP’s popularity ahead of general elections scheduled for the summer of 2024, in which Modi is eyeing a third term as prime minister.
Modi and his closest aide, home minister Amit Shah, had campaigned aggressively for the BJP in Gujarat for nearly a month, holding multiple rallies and roadshows.
“Thank you, Gujarat. I am overcome with a lot of emotions seeing the phenomenal election results,” Modi tweeted on Thursday. “People blessed politics of development and at the same time expressed a desire that they want this momentum to continue at a greater pace.”
‘Safety is our only concern’
Muslims, who comprise nearly 10 percent of Gujarat’s 60 million population, face growing hatred and institutionalised discrimination in what is considered India’s most communally polarised state.
Kaleem Siddiqui, a minority rights activist in Gujarat’s main city of Ahmedabad, told Al Jazeera the BJP ran an extensive anti-Muslim campaign to garner votes in the state polls.
“The voting has been done using a communal angle. There is no Muslim representation in politics. We don’t have a voice, and the government wants to suppress us further in a polarised environment,” he said.
“The Muslim minorities have accepted the government is not for us. We don’t even have any expectations from the government. Our concern has always been our safety.
“The hatred has been expanded by the BJP in the last five years, from urban to rural areas. We are really worried about this,” he said.
Yagnesh Dave, spokesman for the BJP in Gujarat, said his party has won even in “Muslim areas” where the Congress Party had previously won.
“People have chosen us. It shows that Muslims are also supporting us,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, he said the party’s election manifesto has promised to create so-called “anti-radicalisation cells” which he said was “to eliminate potential threats and anti-India forces”.
The formation of a task force to scrutinise the curriculum in Muslim schools across the state was also in the manifesto, Dave added.
“The anti-radicalisation task force is being created to check ‘love jihad’ and protect Hindus,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the Hindu far-right conspiracy theory that believes Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam.
The Congress Party, which controlled the politics of the South Asian nation for decades, has struggled to make a comeback. One of its top leaders, Rahul Gandhi, is currently holding a Bharat Jodo Yatra (India Unity March), a cross-country walk the party says is aimed at addressing the hatred and divisions in society.
The 3,500km (2,175-mile) march on foot started in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in September and is scheduled to reach Indian-administered Kashmir in February.