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Nirmala Ganapathy
Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

Asia

Polls in two states show Modi's star still shining

The Straits Times | Nirmala Ganapathy | Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's drawing power shows little sign of weakening, elections in two key states demonstrated yesterday, underscoring the 64-year-old leader's grip on India and his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Under Mr Modi, who took office just five months ago, the BJP won an outright majority in northern Haryana and looked set to become the biggest party in western Maharashtra, two states where the BJP had a weak presence until now.

Analysts credited the win to Mr Modi, who is widely expected to leverage on the twin victories to push through major reforms to create jobs and promote growth.

"These two victories would strengthen the hands of leadership to take reforms forward. How he (Modi) goes forward everyone will be watching with great caution," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, deputy vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"It (the win) is a combination of the continued support for Modi and the voters dealing with discredited state governments. Very clearly, in both states, anti-incumbency together with a rival party projecting strong leadership worked," he added.

Maharashtra and Haryana, both highly industrialised states, will now become an important part of Mr Modi's efforts to attract foreign investment and boost the manufacturing sector.

Mumbai, the country's financial centre, is the capital city of Maharashtra.

So far, Mr Modi has opened up the country's economic sectors, such as defence and construction, but he still needs to carry out labour reforms - a politically sensitive issue - and clean up land acquisition rules.

Even before yesterday's elections, Mr Modi launched some reforms on Saturday, raising natural gas prices and lifting diesel price controls in a big step towards cutting back subsidies that remain a drain on government resources. He took the step even as exit polls indicated a win for the BJP in the states.

The two elections are also seen as a boost for the Modi brand, which took a knock in two recent by-elections. The BJP did poorly in both, leading some to interpret it as a "fading of his aura".

"Beyond a doubt, it is a boost to his leadership stature because, in both Haryana and Maharashtra, the party had campaigned under his leadership," said Dr Shastri.

Agreeing, Mr Buddhadeb Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, said: "There was no other political luminary who could take on Modi. You can't compare Modi to (Congress vice-president) Rahul Gandhi."

Mr Modi was the face of the BJP campaign, holding at least one rally a day. He often mocked the Gandhi family, saying dynasty rule had to end, and promised voters better governance under his party.

For the Congress, the losses in Maharashtra and Haryana continued a losing streak. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul were barely visible during campaigning and state leaders were hard put to counter the anti-incumbency factor.

Still, some saw the BJP's failure to win a simple majority in Maharashtra as a signal to Mr Modi that he cannot go it alone all the time.

"The relevance of regional parties cannot be ignored and Modi cannot steamroll over everybody," said Dr Surendra Jondhale from the University of Mumbai's department of civics and politics.

"The Modi factor worked but not to the extent they had hoped for."

What's ahead

Maharashtra and Haryana - both highly industrialised states - will become an important part of Mr Modi's efforts to attract foreign investment and boost the manufacturing sector.

He has opened up economic sectors, such as defence and construction, but he still needs to carry out labour reforms and clean up land acquisition rules.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 20, 2014.
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