Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party wins Gujarat election, but by smaller margin

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was in a close fight with the main opposition in an election in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state.
India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was in a close fight with the main opposition in an election in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party scored its sixth straight victory in assembly elections in his home state of Gujarat, but by a slimmer than anticipated margin this time against its rival Congress party.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 97 seats and was leading in two others in the western state, according to the Election Commission,

The Congress - which accepted defeat - secured 76 seats and was leading in one seat in a bitterly fought battle for 182 seats in the state assembly.

BJP members celebrated the win with party president Amit Shah, speaking at a press conference, hailing the win as an endorsement of Mr Modi's economic policies. However, the issues of caste and religion also figured during election campaigning.

Besides Gujarat, the BJP also won in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

"I bow to the people of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh for their affection and trust in BJP," Mr Modi said in a tweet. Later in an address at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, Mr Modi said: "(The) election results have proven that the country is ready for reform." He accused opponents of trying to derail the BJP's development efforts.

Gujarat is a BJP stronghold, with Mr Modi widely credited for transforming the state into an economic powerhouse when he led it as chief minister from 2001 to 2014.

In the 2012 election, the BJP won more seats - 116 seats - compared to 60 by the Congress.

"The headline is that the BJP has won... A more detailed narrative is that at some level the people of Gujarat were discontented, especially with the lack of economic progress," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University.

"The BJP has not done so well in rural Gujarat though it retained its hold in urban Gujarat.''

In contrast, analysts were quick to note a resurgent Congress, which just handed the reins of power to Mr Rahul Gandhi on Saturday, following its humiliating defeat in the 2014 general election.

Monday's result was the party's best performance in Gujarat in more than two decades.

"The Congress did better this time. But elections are about winning and it did not win," said Dr Shastri. "For quite some time, the Congress lost its way. In this election it was willing to fight and challenge the BJP. This was clear to see."

Mr Modi, the BJP's star campaigner, had faced public unhappiness over poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the demonetisation of high value currency notes in November last year. Both policies, while hailed as important reforms, ended up hurting businesses.

Still it was Mr Modi's popularity that won the day, according to analysts.

"Mr Modi remains a popular leader. Modi and Amit Shah know how to win elections,'' said Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty, a political science professor at Delhi University.

The BJP also powered to victory in Uttar Pradesh state earlier this year.

"The BJP was thinking of getting 150 seats (in Gujarat) - that was the hype that was created. So this was a setback, though not a disaster. After 22 years the BJP is still in majority," said Prof Chakrabarty.

But the BJP's smaller margin of victory in its own bastion appears to have invigorated opposition parties.

"I congratulate Gujarat voters for their very balanced verdict at this hour. It is a temporary and face-saving win, but it shows a moral defeat for BJP," tweeted Ms Mamata Bannerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress, which is in power in West Bengal.

State elections will  lead up to India's next general election in 2019. The BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will hold elections early next year.