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India's pro-Hindu party retains power in key state

The BJP was defeated in Bihar in 2015 but later controlled the government by joining an alliance

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Updated: November 12, 2020 06:24 AM GMT
India's pro-Hindu party retains power in key state

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering at the Bharatiya Janata Party's headquarters in New Delhi on Nov. 11 as BJP president Jagat Prakash Nadda (top right) gestures during celebrations after the party's victory in Bihar's Assembly election and by-elections in other states. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP)

India's ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recorded another round of crucial poll victories in the eastern state of Bihar and in by-polls for legislative seats in 11 states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP and its alliance partner Janata Dal (United People's Party), a socialist-backed outfit, won 125 seats, three more than the simple majority needed to form a government in the 223-seat legislative house in Bihar.

The opposition alliance formed by state-based Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress could manage only 110 seats when results were declared on Nov. 11

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Official records show that over 41 million voters decided 3,755 candidates' fate in a state that was hit with recent floods and the Covid-19 pandemic. Bihar was one of the worst-hit Indian states by the woes of migrant workers during a national lockdown enforced to combat Covid-19.

Observers say the poll outcome showed the BJP's tact and ability to manage elections, especially in a state like Bihar that reflects India's religious diversity and ethnic and caste divisions.

Five years ago, contesting alone, the BJP suffered a major defeat in the state. The alliance of Congress, RJD and Janata Dal (United) formed the government after recording a convincing win.

However, by the end of 2017, chief minister and JDU leader Nitish Kumar parted ways from the coalition over corruption and was quickly supported by the BJP. The JDU-BJP alliance then began to run the government.

The outcome in Bihar also revived the debate on electronic voting machines (EVMs), which replaced the paper ballots used in Indian elections a decade ago.

Several Congress leaders suspect the possibility of ruling governments manipulating electronic machines to rig elections in their favor.

Congress leader Udit Raj says these machines "should go even if Congress wins."

"If one can control satellites on the moon and Mars from the ground, then what is an EVM in front of them? During the recent Haryana polls, a few boys were caught hacking EVMs through Bluetooth. I am saying it for all polls, not just Bihar," he said.

Scattering votes

BJP leaders, as expected, dismissed the charges as losers blaming the machines. "I have heard that EVMs are now the face of betrayal," tweeted BJP youth leader Amit Kumar Pandey in Hindi.

AIMIM, the pro-Muslim party led by Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi, won five seats and made its presence felt in several other seats. But the party's progress damaged the prospects of BJP rivals by scattering anti-BJP votes, observers say.

The Bihar polls and the by-polls were the first in India amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The election was also seen as a referendum on the BJP-led federal government's performance in handling pandemic-related challenges.

In the by-polls, the BJP consolidated its hold across 11 states. In PM Modi's native state of Gujarat, the party won all the eight Assembly seats for which by-elections were held on Nov. 3. The BJP also won six out of seven seats in Uttar Pradesh and 19 out of 28 seats in Madhya Pradesh. It also won four out of five seats in Manipur, a state with a significant Christian presence.

BJP leader Jay Panda said the results "show the dynamic presence of Prime Minister Modi at the national level across states."

The BJP, however, could not win any of the two seats in Christian-majority Nagaland state, where a by-election was held following the death of two members.

"The opposition parties need new ideas and one or two new faces ... At the national level, the onus is on Congress to rediscover its vote-winning capacities," said commentator Nirmal Panigrahi.

India's next round of election battles will shift to communist-ruled Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, plus the eastern states of Assam and West Bengal. These states go to the polls in April-May 2021.

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