India’s opposition Congress party has won power in a key state, partial election results showed, defeating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP a year ahead of national polls.
It removed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party from office in Karnataka, the only southern state controlled by the Hindu nationalist grouping.
With dozens of results still to come in on Saturday, Congress had already won 114 places in the 224-seat assembly, enough for an overall majority, and was leading in another 22, which would give it a comfortable cushion, the election commission website showed.
Karnataka has a population of more than 60 million people – about the same as the United Kingdom – and its capital Bengaluru is India’s tech hub. The state voted on Wednesday and full results are expected later Saturday.
It is the second state Modi’s party has lost to the Congress party in the last six months. In December, Congress unseated BJP in northern Himachal Pradesh, a small state tucked in the Himalayas.
The poll results are expected to energise the largely divided opposition that is banking on forming a united front to challenge Modi in next year’s general election, in which he will seek to extend his prime ministership for a third consecutive term.
Jairam Ramesh, Congress’s general secretary, attributed the party’s victory to having fought the election campaign on local issues of “livelihood and food security, price rise, farmer distress, electricity supply, joblessness, and corruption”.
“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,” Ramesh wrote on Twitter.
“The markets of hate have been shut down and the shops of love have opened,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters at the party headquarters in New Delhi, where his jubilant supporters and party members burst firecrackers and danced to the beat of drums.
Over the past couple of years, Modi’s party had been trying to maximise gains in Karnataka, where communal polarisation between majority Hindus and minority Muslims has deepened after BJP leaders and supporters banned girls from wearing the headscarf as part of their school uniform.
According to the 2011 census, India’s most recent, 84 percent of Karnataka’s people were Hindu, almost 13 percent Muslim and less than 2 percent Christian.
‘I respectfully accept this verdict’
BJP state leader BS Yediyurappa, a former chief minister, conceded defeat.
“Victory and defeat aren’t new to BJP,” he told reporters. “We will [be introspective] 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 ISIL (ISIS) group.
Modi also attempted to woo Hindu voters by chanting an ode to the monkey god Hanuman.
“This election has exposed the limits of Modi’s popularity,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, political commentator and author of the book – Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.
“It shows the BJP’s attempts to polarise the voters somehow or the other has not worked and that there are limits to the politics of Hindutva,” he told the AFP news agency.
The win would “enhance Congress party’s position within the gamut of opposition parties”, he said, but would likely not affect the overall result in 2024.
Congress, the party of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, dominated the country’s politics for decades but has been in decline for years, and the victory in Karnataka will raise the number of states it controls 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.