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Indian Local Election Could Signal Change In Political Landscape


In state elections in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved closer to consolidating power over the world's biggest democracy today. Elections have been going on in India for five weeks, and the Prime Minister's Bharatiya Janata Party also known as the BJP scored landslide victories. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from New Delhi to talk about what these results mean. Julie, what happened today?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, there were five states where legislative assemblies were up for grabs, and there are sort of a geographical cross-section which provides a national glimpse of what voters might be thinking. We had Manipur in the east, Goa in the west, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the north. And the BJP is forming the government's in four out of five of those states.

SINGH: What makes the latest state elections so much more significant?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, for one thing, they quiet what has been a pretty huge debate here in India. The eyes of the world were looking at New Delhi last year over a controversial cash crunch that Modi created. He ordered all high value banknotes pulled from circulation. It was supposed to force people who had hidden unreported cash to deposit it, own up and pay the tax man. For weeks, there wasn't enough cash in circulation, and people were miserable. But, Lakshmi, this does not seem to have mattered at all in this election. And Modi can claim that the people were with him.

SINGH: Julie, tell me a little bit about the turnout. What was that like? Who voted?

MCCARTHY: Well, there was about 60 percent vote, and the remarkable thing is that more women in all five of these states voted than men did. And three of these five states are in northern India - right? - where there's entrenched conservative views about women from discrimination against women in marriage, divorce, education. But this turnout reflects the fact that women are being educated and increasingly aware of their rights. And they force parties to talk about the issues they care about - safety, better health, better transportation, less sexual discrimination. And so the women now have a bigger say in making officials accountable.

SINGH: Just looking forward, what do these state elections mean overall in the long term?

MCCARTHY: I'm not sure these state elections really represent pushing out of policy beyond the borders of India. What they do do is combine cumulatively - you're going to find yourself pretty soon in the year 2019 where there will be national elections. And if Modi has a head wind behind him, he will be emboldened to be a more active player on the world stage, to see how he can deepen relations with the people and the countries around him. So I would look for that area certainly to be more developed.

SINGH: Because we remind listeners that Modi was a once widely seen as a polarizing figure, right?

MCCARTHY: Oh, yes, he was. And many still consider him to be a polarizing figure. You know, his critics say he's a self-declared Hindu nationalist, and that often was couched in terms of promoting Hindus and often demeaning the Muslim community. So they're always very watchful when Modi's on the campaign trail to see if that Hindu nationalism will rear its head. It did slightly in this campaign, but it wasn't the overall message.

And now that Modi has drawn a support from the Hindu community, from the Muslim community who are often at different sides of the aisle, it allows his party to say, look, Modi is a unifying force. He's not a polarizing one, which is a very important message to project to the world, let alone the people inside this country.

SINGH: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy. Julie, thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.

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