India PM Modi steers party to state election wins

New Delhi (AFP) –


India's ruling party Monday celebrated victory in two state elections, but saw its majority dip in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stronghold of Gujarat, where the charismatic leader campaigned aggressively in a closely-fought race.

The wins in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh further cemented Modi's dominance, with his Hindu nationalist party now ruling in roughly two-thirds of India's states ahead of a general election slated for 2019.

Modi, draped in a garland of flowers, thanked voters in Gujarat -- his home state of 60 million people -- for backing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a sixth consecutive term.

"The Gujarat election results are historic. In this day and age, for a party to keep winning for so long is unprecedented," he told cheering supporters at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi.

India's election commission said the party won 99 seats in the 182-seat Gujarat parliament, more than the majority mark of 92 needed to form government.

But it lost 16 seats compared to the 2012 polls.

The party was also poised to wrest control of the northern Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh from the main opposition Congress party, extending its command to 19 of India's 29 states.

Congress, which has ruled India for much of its history but was thumped by Modi's BJP in the 2014 national poll, now holds just four states in the world's largest democracy of 1.25 billion.

Modi's chief rival Rahul Gandhi, who recently replaced his mother Sonia at the helm of Congress, said he "accepts the verdict of the people".

"I thank the people of Gujarat and Himachal with all my heart for the love they showed me," tweeted Rahul, the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to head Congress.

- 'Lost ground' -

The BJP has ruled Gujarat for 22 years -- more than half under Modi as state leader.

Some experts had forecast a backlash against Modi over unpopular economic reforms that hit Gujarati businesses hard, including a controversial cash ban and roll out of a national goods and services tax.

"They have certainly lost a lot of ground, but Congress should have actually won this election, given the anger in the state against the BJP," political commentator Manisha Priyam told AFP.

Rahul made frequent stops at temples while campaigning in the BJP heartland, inviting ridicule from detractors who accused him of trying to lure Hindu voters.

Congress, a secular party, gained 17 seats this election, taking its total to 77.

Campaigning in Gujarat took ugly turns as the battle intensified.

Modi, who thundered from the pulpit at BJP rallies across Gujarat, accused senior Congress figures, including a former prime minister, of colluding with India's arch rival Pakistan to meddle in the state vote.

A Congress party veteran was suspended after using a Hindi slur to describe Modi as low class, remarks the BJP seized to cast Congress as elitist.

In declaring victory, BJP chief Amit Shah credited Modi for prevailing over "family politics" -- a thinly-veiled sleight against Rahul and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has led Congress for generations.

As the results trickled in, BJP supporters danced, threw rose petals and chanted "Long live Modi" in Delhi.

"This (victory) was expected... It is a tremendous victory and Modi has come out as the single most popular leader," BJP supporter Sandeep Kapoor told AFP.

India's Sensex plunged in opening trade Monday but recovered throughout the day as results turned in favour of the BJP.