By Tommy Wilkes
NEW DELHI, May 19 – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party declared victory on Thursday in the northeastern state of Assam, an election boost that will help his right-wing nationalist government rebuild some momentum after poll losses last year.
Grabbing power in Assam, one of five states electing new assemblies, would be a first for the Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s volatile northeast, a sign its political influence is expanding beyond its traditional northern and western belt.
The BJP led in the races for 81 of the 126 seats in Assam where clear trends had been set, unofficial tallies compiled by television broadcasters showed.
The opposition Congress Party, which has ruled the state assembly since 2001, trailed with 26 seats.
Modi called the Assam victory an “exceptional win” on Twitter and congratulated his party leaders.
Elsewhere, tallies by television channels showed popular regional parties heading for victory in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the eastern state of West Bengal, where the BJP has a small presence and was not expected to win.
Modi called the chief ministers of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu to congratulate them, he said on Twitter.
“The BJP had nothing to lose in these elections, only something to gain,” said Manoj Joshi, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation. “And they have gained. It shows the momentum is still with them.”
Counting of votes from the five states began at 0230 GMT and complete results are expected later on Thursday.
The BJP waged a polarising campaign in Assam, an underdeveloped state rife with ethnic and religious tension, and vowed to disenfranchise millions of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, to curry favour among discontented Hindus.
Modi took a less prominent role in elections this year after a bad loss in a November poll in the eastern state of Bihar that turned into a referendum on his personal leadership. His party also lost in the capital New Delhi early last year.
“The people of Assam have accepted our winning combination. This is going to be a great victory,” BJP chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal told Indian television, as supporters gathered in the state capital, Guwahati.
Victory in Assam, while symbolic, will have little impact on Modi’s ability to control the upper house of parliament, where his party lacks a majority and the opposition has stymied key economic reforms.
But the prospect of Congress weakened further by the state vote will raise his party’s hopes for its bitter foe to be less resistant to the legislation.
Unofficial counts showed a Congress-led coalition was headed for defeat at the hands of leftist parties in Kerala.