India’s opposition Congress party was heading for victory in a key state Saturday, partial election results showed, defeating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP a year ahead of national polls.
It was set to oust Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party from office in Karnataka, the only southern state where the Hindu nationalist grouping held power.
Karnataka has a population of well over 60 million people — about the same as Britain — and its capital Bengaluru is India’s tech hub.
Congress had won 82 seats and was leading in another 54, the election commission website showed, and was set for a comfortable overall majority in the 224-seat legislature.
BJP state leader B.S. Yediyurappa — a former chief minister — conceded defeat.
“Victory and defeat aren’t new to BJP,” he told reporters. “We will introspect about the party’s setback. I respectfully accept this verdict.” The party had mounted a major campaign in the state with Modi himself visiting to promote its muscular brand of Hindu politics.
At one of his rallies, Modi praised an incendiary new film that wildly exaggerates the number of Hindu women converting to Islam and joining the Islamic State jihadist group.
Modi — who is widely expected to stand again in the 2024 general election — also attempted to woo Hindu majority voters by chanting an ode to the monkey god Hanuman.
“We have been not able to make the mark, in spite of a lot of efforts [that] have been put up by everybody right from our prime minister to the workers,” said Karnataka’s BJP Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on Saturday after the results.
“We accept the verdict of people of Karnataka with due respect, we will take this verdict in our stride,” Bommai tweeted.
Congress campaigned hard on secularism, giveaways of free electricity and rice for the poor, and accusations of BJP corruption.
“The marketplace of hatred has been shut down,” its leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters at party headquarters in Delhi.
“The PM injected divisiveness and attempted polarisation, The vote in Karnataka is for an engine in Bengaluru that will combine economic growth with social harmony.” tweeted Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh
But analysts say the Karnataka result may have limited impact on next year’s poll, at which the BJP is widely expected to secure a third consecutive victory.
Congress, the party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, dominated Indian politics for decades but has been in decline for years, and the victory in Karnataka will raise its total number of states to just four.
The BJP fell short of a majority in the last state election in Karnataka in 2018, but it assumed power a year later allegedly by persuading members of the ruling coalition to defect.