There are victories, and then there are victories. Last weekend’s electoral triumph by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the pivotal north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of the latter sort. In an outcome that shocked analysts, political rivals, and even some on the winning side, an alliance led by BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi won 325 out of 403 seats on offer in the state assembly, a humiliating defeat for opposition forces. In the four other states that also went to polls, the BJP is set to form governments in as many as three.
Short of actually winning a national election, UP is undoubtedly the biggest prize on the electoral map. Home to more than 200 million people, if UP were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest. It is also the metaphorical heart of the Hindi heartland, the home state of many a prime minister, and a coveted political stronghold. Over the last few weeks, the state has been plastered with Modi’s face; his words boomed over countless loudspeakers. More than a vote for the BJP, this was a vote for Modi. The results create more political space for the BJP to govern, and they improve the party’s electoral prospects ahead of the 2019 general elections. Meanwhile, they also add momentum to efforts to recast the party in Modi’s mold.
The first and most obvious takeaway from the BJP victory is that Modi is the most popular politician in India, and by a long shot. There is simply no opposition politician, either in New Delhi or in the state capitals, who comes close. Indeed, right now Modi is able to garner more votes than any other democratic leader on the planet. And that is despite his surprise decision last November to immediately invalidate high-denomination rupee notes (accounting for the vast majority of Indian currency) in an effort to crack down on black money. The demonetization maneuver has been widely derided by economists for its