The Bharatiya Janata Party, coming off a huge victory in May’s parliamentary elections, suffered a political setback on Tuesday with a poor showing in state legislative by-elections in three northern Indian states, including one that was swept by Hindu-Muslim tensions in the weeks leading up to the vote.
The party has hoped to sustain electoral momentum and win control of a series of major states in the coming months, which would ultimately make it possible to control both houses of Parliament and further consolidate power. The by-elections, held to fill seats vacated by resignations, are watched closely as a gauge of electoral strength.
Tuesday’s biggest surprise came in Uttar Pradesh, where Bharatiya Janata was expected to benefit from rising religious tensions and a consolidation of Hindu votes, but won only three of 11 contested seats. The campaign there was headed by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu hard-liner who has delivered a series of sharply polarizing speeches. Activists issued widespread warnings about a “love jihad,” a supposed plot by Muslim men to seduce and convert Hindu women.
The other eight seats went to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Samajawadi, the target of longstanding complaints about poor administration and lax policing. The Indian National Congress party, battered in May’s national vote, won three of the four available seats in Rajasthan and three of nine in Gujarat, the state long headed by Narendra Modi, a Bharatiya Janata leader who is now the prime minister.
The seats themselves have little political relevance, but do raise questions about elections set for October in the large Congress-controlled states of Maharashtra and Haryana. In similar by-elections in the northern state of Bihar and Uttarakhand, Bharatiya Janata lost political clout immediately after the national elections in May.
The results should discourage Bharatiya Janata from leaning too heavily on religious divisions as an electoral strategy, said A. K. Verma, a professor of political science at Christ Church College in Kanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh. He said the party should instead focus its message on development and economic opportunity. Moreover, he said, state elections may not follow the template of May’s national elections, which he called “a Modi-centric phenomenon.”