The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lost control of an important southern state to the Indian National Congress in a closely watched election, dealing a rare political setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi a year before national elections.
Early results released by the Election Commission of India on Saturday at 8pm showed Congress winning or leading 136 of the 224 seats up for election in the Karnataka state assembly.
The Bharatiya Janata Party won or was leading in 65 seats, suggesting that Congress would be able to form a government without a coalition partner.
Karnataka is one of the richest states of India and home to the technology hub of Bengaluru. Defeat means that the BJP will lose the only state it governs in the south of the country.
Modi has personally campaigned for a week ahead of Wednesday’s vote, which both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress have described as strategically important. The two parties’ candidates raised issues of religion, sect, economy and corruption.
“We have not been able to leave a mark despite a lot of efforts [that] Introduced by everyone from our chief minister to the workers, Basavaraj Bommai, chief minister of Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party, in conceding defeat broadcast online on Saturday, said.
The results will be a huge boost for the Congress, which was India’s dominant political party for decades before being crushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party in national elections in 2014 and 2019.
A senior congressional official attributed the party’s victory to its campaigning on domestic issues.
“The prime minister has injected division and tried to polarize,” said Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in charge of communications, books on Twitter. “The vote in Karnataka is for an engine in Bengaluru that will combine economic growth with social harmony.”
Modi, accompanied by Amit Shah, his deputy and home affairs minister, and other officials campaigned in Karnataka on the strength of introducing a “dual drive” government for the state, with the BJP in power in both New Delhi and Bengaluru.
Before the election, the BJP government scrapped the 4 percent reservation under affirmative action quotas for the Muslim minority, reallocating it to two other disadvantaged groups in a move seen as attractive to its Hindu nationalist base. Muslims make up about 13 percent of the population of Karnataka.
One analyst said the result was a clear win for the Congress, but noted that much of the party’s gains appeared to come at the expense of the Janata Dal (secular), the third largest party, rather than the BJP.
“This is a definite victory for Congress,” said Sugata Srinivasaraju, a Bengaluru-based writer and journalist. “But I’m not going to extrapolate this and say 2024 will necessarily be the same because the BJP seems to have retained its share of the vote.”
The Congress had described Karnataka’s vote, along with the upcoming state elections, as a springboard to rebuild its base nationwide.
Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh in New Delhi
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