Big seems too small a word to describe the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Spread over an area roughly the size of Britain, UP is home to about 220 million people–more than the populations of Germany, France and Italy together. With scale comes political heft. Nine out of India’s 15 Prime Ministers landed in New Delhi via UP, including the incumbent, Narendra Modi, whose parliamentary constituency, Varanasi, is in the state. UP also sends 80 members to the powerful lower house of the national parliament, way more than any other Indian territory. It is the political engine room of the world’s largest democracy.
Thus, when UP began voting in state polls last month, just over halfway through Modi’s five-year term, all of India sat up and paid attention. And so did many outside India, given the country’s growing influence on the world stage.
Modi, 66, a charismatic politician with the power of oratory, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nearly swept UP in the 2014 general elections, taking all but nine parliamentary seats en route to becoming Prime Minister.
His own story is compelling: a tea seller’s son who rose to be chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s fastest-growing states, and then winner of the nation’s highest office. But could the Modi magic that propelled the BJP to the biggest national victory for any party in 30 years still sway voters? Or was India tiring of the Prime Minister’s constant sloganeering about economic development, even as the nation of 1.3 billion people struggled to produce enough jobs for its youth?
Economists have also raised doubts about Modi’s competence as a policymaker, following a surprise decision in November to scrap high-value currency notes that sparked pain across India’s cash-based economy. The government’s justification was as confused as its execution, with a shortage of replacement notes triggering long queues at banks and ATMs.
At various times, the initiative was billed either as a crusade against “black money”–illicit, untaxed wealth–that would force the rich to declare their hoards of dirty cash or a way to spur India’s digital transformation by weaning it off its dependence on paper currency. But neither objective has yet been realized. Also, growth has suffered–the latest International Monetary Fund forecasts point to a 6.6% expansion this year, down one percentage point and placing India behind China, owing largely to Modi’s move.
Yet the BJP chose him to be the face of what was a contest to choose a regional government, making the UP ballot a referendum on his leadership. “Modi is their most effective campaigner,” says Sanjay Kumar, an election analyst and director of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “They made him central to this election, which to some looked risky at the time.”
The gamble paid off–and how. On the day before the final round of voting, on March 8, questions about Modi’s performance in office cut little ice with Virender Prasad, who sells Hindu idols in Modi’s eastern UP constituency of Varanasi. One of Hinduism’s most sacred places, this ancient city was picked by Modi as his springboard when he ran for Prime Minister in 2014. Prasad has been a fan ever since. “It is easy to criticize him. But how much can he do in three years?” As tourists and Hindu pilgrims streamed past his shop near the banks of the holy river Ganges, Prasad focused not on Modi’s achievements but his intentions: “At least he is trying to do something for the country.”
Prasad wasn’t the only one to keep the faith. The monthlong elections resulted in a landslide for the BJP; it won its biggest majority ever in the mammoth state–and the biggest for any party since the 1980s: 312 of 403 contested seats in the state assembly. “No one anticipated this scale of victory,” says Kumar. UP’s voters had tuned out the doubters; what mattered to them, says Kumar, “was the image of Modi and huge expectations that this is the man who will deliver.”
It was a stunning rerun of 2014–with a twist. Then, as growth slowed and the Congress Party–led government got bogged down in corruption scandals, middle-class voters hungry for change looked to Modi as an energetic, can-do leader who would finally unlock India’s potential by reforming its creaking economic architecture. Three years on, as some Indians grumble about his record of reforms and as the cash ban hits many citizens, Modi has recast himself as a populist moral crusader taking on wealthy elites. In a country with yawning income inequalities and a history of corruption by those at the top, Modi and his aides repackaged him as a messiah for the forgotten poor.
The messaging worked. “The government narrative that the [cash ban] was aimed at rich people with black money won over many voters even if they had suffered because of the ban,” says Bhanu Joshi of the Centre for Policy Research, who traveled through UP as it went to the polls. “Across UP, the language was never about the BJP. It was about Modi.”
That’s bad news for Congress, now in opposition and flailing under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great grandson of former Indian Prime Ministers. In UP, Congress joined forces with a local party that had been in power in the state since 2012, hoping for a repeat of the result in Bihar state in 2015, when the BJP was trounced by a coalition of regional leaders. Congress played a bit part in the Bihar coalition as a junior partner.
This time, the alliance failed as Modi’s appeal helped the BJP cut across UP’s fiendishly complex patchwork of Hindu caste and community allegiances. For more than a decade, UP has been ruled by local parties that succeeded by mobilizing different Hindu caste groups, along with members of its roughly 40 million-strong Muslim community. Modi’s personal popularity gave the BJP a much broader appeal. Says Joshi: “Modi as a brand–aspirational and seen by voters as sincere–was very clear. The opposition did not have a competing brand that was as strong.”
Modi wasn’t the only factor. The BJP, which has its roots in India’s Hindu right-wing movement and did not field a single Muslim candidate in UP, also propagated the divisive message that the other parties favored Muslims over Hindu voters. At one public rally, for example, the Prime Minister said that “if there is electricity during [the Islamic fasting month of] Ramzan, it should be there on [the Hindu festival of] Diwali as well,” according to a translation of his speech by the Indian Express newspaper. “They suggested that the Hindus were at the receiving end of the policies [of the other parties],” says Kumar.
“Election comments don’t change the agenda of the government,” says Nalin Kohli, a BJP spokesman, rejecting the assertion that the party tried to divide voters along religious lines. “Our message and agenda was and is the same as 2014, which is development for all, regardless of caste and religion. This result establishes support for our agenda and the credibility of Narendra Modi as a leader. This is the message from the voters of India.”
The outcome puts Modi in a strong position to win re-election in 2019, so much so that one of the BJP’s regional opponents was moved to tweet: “In a nutshell there is no leader today with a pan-India acceptability who can take on Modi & BJP in 2019. At this rate we might as well forget 2019 and start planning/hoping for 2024.”
Modi’s 2014 victory did not herald the economic reforms to create jobs for the roughly 12 million Indians who enter the workforce every year. Labor laws, for example, are still among the most restrictive in the world, stymieing growth as companies seek flexibility in hiring and firing workers. Progress includes the approval of a new tax law to replace the byzantine system of state and local taxes with a simple, more commerce-friendly alternative. But India remains a notoriously tough place to do business. Seeking to enforce a disputed contract in India’s commercial capital Mumbai? Clear your calendar: it takes an average of nearly four years, according to the World Bank.
Now, as the cash ban hits the country’s growth rate, the BJP’s overwhelming victory once again turns the spotlight on Modi and his promises–and when he will deliver. “Eventually, there has to be more than the image of the good guy and the guy who has sincere intentions,” says Joshi.
“This was not a vote for or against one policy. This was a vote for Modi. And such a huge majority brings huge expectations,” adds Kumar. “It actually poses a different kind of challenge for the BJP. People expect the government to deliver. There are no more excuses.”
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This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.