India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to retain populous Uttar Pradesh and is leading in regional elections in three other states in what is being seen as an endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity before the general election in 2024.
The BJP coalition was leading in about 260 of the 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh, Indian news channels reported on Thursday citing counting data, while the Election Commission said the party was ahead in enough seats to hold onto power.
“Everyone will he surprised by the mandate because we are going to win with a thumping majority,” said Uttar Pradesh BJP spokesman Rakesh Tripathi.
Uttar Pradesh is home to about a fifth of India’s 1.35 billion people and sends the most legislators to parliament of any state.
The key northern state is governed by Yogi Adityanath, a highly divisive Hindu monk-turned-politician whose rise has been marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence.
Adityanath, 49, rose from humble beginnings to become head priest of an important Hindu temple and founded a vigilante youth group.
Its volunteers regularly rough up Muslims and Dalits (formerly referred to as “untouchables”) accused of slaughtering cows, an animal sacred to mostly upper-caste Hindus.
His administration also brought in a law to ban “love jihad”, an unproven conspiracy theory propagated by the BJP and its Hindu right-wing allies accusing Muslims of marrying Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.
The Uttar Pradesh government has also targeted journalists and others with spurious “sedition” charges, critics say.
Media reports say more than 100 alleged criminals – most of them Muslims or Dalits – have been the victims of extra-judicial police killings, a charge Adityanath denies.
His economic record has also been poor and his government is widely seen as having bungled the response to COVID-19, including by concealing the real death toll.
“The BJP’s big win in Uttar Pradesh shows consolidation of the Hindutva project,” journalist and political analyst Arati R Jerath told Al Jazeera.
Hindutva refers to a century-old right-wing movement that aims to create an ethnic Hindu state out of a multicultural India, home to more than 200 million Muslims.
“BJP is now [the]only national force left. No challenge to it nationally,” Jerath said.
For decades, Uttar Pradesh was a stronghold of the main opposition Congress party, but it has been unable to stem a slide in its popularity over recent years.
The BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh is a “big endorsement of the kind of aggressive and hard-nosed politics that he [Modi] has been pursuing”, journalist and Modi biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said.