F ive states in India held elections over the past month, but one mattered far more than the others.
Uttar Pradesh is no ordinary state: with a population of over 215 million (more than five times the size of California) its legislature is the jewel that every party covets. An opportunity arose for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when a father-son leadership feud cleaved the Samajwadi Party - which controlled the assembly - in two. Still, many observers felt his decision late last year to scrap almost 90% of the India’s currency to fight corruption would tip the balance in favour of the incumbents.
During the election’s final stages, sensing a need to step up its campaign, the BJP rolled the dice. Mr. Modi took to Uttar Pradesh’s streets, becoming, in the absence of a candidate for the role of chief executive, the face of the campaign. Could his skillful electioneering and personal popularity turn the tide, despite the taint of demonetisation?
The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. The BJP and its National Democratic Alliance partners took 325 seats, an enormous majority. If voters did not like the effect of Mr. Modi’s cash bonfire and other policies, they seem to have bought into the reasoning. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment argues that BJP supporters believe Mr. Modi “is genuinely trying to make improvements” to the economy - “more than can be said of others” - and that his demonetisation policy “would put fat cats with large cash holdings in a bind”.
When the afterglow of victory wears off, Mr. Modi still has far to go to resolve these issues. Corruption plagues the country: a recent Transparency International survey found that nearly 70% of respondents who had accessed public services paid a bribe. Meanwhile, India’s middle class is growing in size and aspiration, making real economic reform all the more urgent. Mr. Modi may struggle to balance this with his populist stance. "The problem in India is that people think reforms are pro-rich," Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist and biographer of the prime minister, told Reuters.
Still, with BJP’s main rival Congress in dire straits and the 2019 national election looking set to be a walkover, Mr. Modi has political capital to burn.