Prime Minister Modi's BJP emerged victorious Monday in two state elections, in the premier's home state of Gujarat as well as the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, allowing the party to further consolidate political power in the South Asian nation.
In the crucial Gujarat state, the BJP has crossed the 92 seats it needs for a majority in the 182-member assembly. This result will return the BJP to power for a sixth consecutive term in the western state, but slash its majority from 115 seats in the last election.
A loss here would have been a major embarrassment for both Modi and the BJP, which has ruled the state in western India for two decades, with Modi himself as leader for 10 years until he became prime minister in 2014. Modi was the main campaigner for the BJP in the state, holding more than three dozen meetings and campaigning on economic development and Hindu nationalism to woo voters.
Modi's star power
"The prime minister played on Gujarati pride and played the son of the soil card to garner votes. Take him away from the equation and the Congress could have well formed the government," Yogendra Yadav, a psephologist, told DW.
Modi's star power was undiminished at BJP headquarters in New Delhi, where supporters danced, threw rose petals and chanted "Long live Modi!" as the results trickled in. The BJP has also secured a majority of seats in the Himachal Pradesh assembly, thus evicting the Congress from power in this northern Himalayan region.
Modi thanked voters in both states for backing his party in the polls. "I bow to the people of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh for their affection and trust in BJP," Modi posted on his official Twitter account, using the initials of his Bharatiya Janata Party. "I assure them that we will leave no stone unturned in furthering the development journey of these states and serve the people tirelessly."
"The winner takes it all. It is an affirmation of our pro-people polices and good governance of the BJP. That is what matters," said India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani.
"It is a victory of political performance over the caste-based politics of the Congress party," BJP President Amit Shah said.
A worthy opponent?
The main opposition Congress, meanwhile, has conceded victory to the BJP.
The party's newly elected president, Rahul Gandhi, tweeted, "The Congress party accepts the verdict of the people and congratulates the new governments in both states. I thank the people of Gujarat and Himachal with all my heart for the love they showed me."
The Congress party recently elected 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi unopposed as its new leader to replace his mother Sonia Gandhi. The Gujarat election was the first real test for the heir to India's most famous political dynasty. The election was bitterly fought, with campaigning marked by sharp verbal duels.
"This election result is a promo for the upcoming assembly elections next year and the real thing which is the 2019 general elections. The script is set now and there is fire in the belly," Congress spokesperson Tom Vadakkan told DW.
"This election shows that Rahul Gandhi is a worthy opponent and able to match Modi. It's a psychological boost for the party and they (BJP) have to be scared, not us," said Congress leader Priyanka Chaturvedi.
But Congress, which has ruled India for much of its history, now holds just four states in the world's largest democracy of 1.25 billion people. The party has steadily lost ground since the BJP swept to power in national elections in 2014.
"The (BJP) have certainly lost a lot of ground (in Gujarat), but Congress should have actually won this election, given the anger in the state against the BJP," political commentator Manisha Priyam was quoted by AFP news agency as saying.
Some experts had forecast a backlash against Modi over unpopular economic reforms that hit businesses hard, including a controversial ban on higher-value banknotes that came to be known as "demonetization,” and the botched introduction of a national goods and services tax.
"The Congress has to introspect. The era of the 1980s is over and the party must realize thatcaste politics will not work. Prime Minister Modi doesn't make false promises. Congress has failed in their attempt to divide society. This is a 'New India,'" BJP minister Prakash Javdekar told DW.
Notwithstanding the electoral losses, the big question is how effective a leader of the Congress party Rahul Gandhi will be. It will be crucial for the electoral fortunes of the party next year, when a series of important state elections are scheduled to be held. This will be then followed by the general elections scheduled in 2019.
"I can say that the Gujarat verdict is a recognition of Rahul Gandhi's personal political capital and though he might not have pulled it off, it gives him and his party supporters belief that the BJP is not invincible," political analyst Shyam Parekh told DW.