Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is staring at election losses in big heartland states, polls show, suggesting that farm distress and a lack of jobs for growing numbers of young people could prove stumbling blocks for his re-election bid in May.
India counts votes on Tuesday from five states that chose new assemblies over the past month, but exit polls show Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could lose the three most important races, while it has little presence in two smaller states dominated by regional parties.
The loss would be the biggest for Modi’s Hindu nationalists since they swept to power in 2014 general elections, followed by wins over the past four years in 22 of India’s 29 states, on promises of thousands of jobs and a doubling in farm income.
Politicians view state polls, though they are usually decided by regional issues, as a pointer to the mood of the BJP’s traditional voting base, ahead of a general election that must be held by May.
Congress is tipped to win in Rajasthan, scrape through in Chhattisgarh and is locked in a photo finish with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are among India’s biggest states.
“The BJP has made a lot of tall claims about income, jobs etc,” Pilot added. “They came out with 28 slogans, ‘Swachh Bharat’ (‘Clean India’), ‘Make in India’ and such, but how many were implemented?”
Modi remains the frontrunner for the general election, however, trailed in personal ratings by his main challenger, Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Modi promised to clean up India and turn it into a top tourist destination as well as lift the share of manufacturing in its economy to a quarter of gross domestic product, following the example of China.
But it has grown only slightly, to 17 percent, with nearly all the ambitious clean-up programmes for cities and the river Ganges, as well as the Make-in-India campaign to build a domestic industrial base, largely unfulfilled.
Anger over weak farm prices, slow growth in rural wages and small businesses hit by a new nationwide goods and service tax has also boiled over, provoking protests by tens of thousands of farmers in Delhi and Mumbai.
Although the BJP might drop a few seats because of anti-incumbency sentiment, it was not losing everything, as some surveys forecast, said party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.
“They have underassessed the BJP,” he added. “They have done it previously too.”
Surveys often prove wrong, partly because it is tough to forecast the outcome of elections involving India’s millions of voters.