Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party was set to lose Karnataka, the only southern India state it governs, according to an early vote count Saturday that showed opposition Congress party leading in the crucial state polls.
With vote counting continuing, India’s Election Commission said the Congress was leading in 127 out of the 224 seats in the state assembly. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was leading in 62 constituencies, while another regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular), was ahead in 22 seats.
Karnataka, one of the wealthiest states in India, voted on Wednesday and full results are expected later Saturday. A party needs 113 seats to win a simple majority.
The results are expected to give a major boost to the opposition parties that are banking on forming a united front to challenge Modi in next year’s general election.
They will also help prospects of the Congress party, which was routed by the BJP in the last two national polls and is striving to regain its political prominence nationwide.
Modi’s party, which was banking on the prime minister’s popularity, wants to retain the only southern state it has ever controlled and where its strident Hindu nationalist politics has found relatively slower reception than the rest of the country.
Over the past several weeks, Modi had campaigned aggressively in Karnataka, home to 65 million people, and crisscrossed the state by holding huge roadshows.
Karnataka is the second state Modi’s party has lost to the Congress in the last six months. In December, the Congress unseated BJP in northern Himachal Pradesh, a small state tucked in the Himalayas.
The Congress party workers celebrated the results with its spokesperson, Radhika Khera, describing the expected win as a “resounding reply to Modi’s divisive politics.”
Over the past couple of years, Modi’s party had been trying to maximize gains in Karnataka, where communal polarization 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.
Initially, Modi’s party promised to spur development and wooed voters with social welfare measures.
However, in the lead-up to the polls it veered toward Hindu nationalism, its usual playbook campaign, and accused the Congress of disregarding Hindu values and appeasing minority groups, particularly Muslims.
The Congress built its campaign by targeting Modi’s party over rising inflation, allegations of corruption and poor infrastructure development in the state, while promising electricity subsidies, rations to poor families, and financial assistance to unemployed graduates.
The polls were also seen as yet another faceoff between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the dynastic Congress party leadership who was convicted of making defamatory remarks about the prime minister’s last name during an election rally in 2019.
It led to Gandhi’s ouster from Parliament in March and he risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if a court does not overturn his conviction.
Late last year, Gandhi set on a 3,500-kilometer (2,185-mile) walking tour of Indian cities, towns and villages to rejuvenate the party and win the people’s support.
The election in Karnataka is the first of five crucial state polls this year. They are seen as an indicator of voter sentiment ahead of national elections next year, in which Modi will seek to extend his prime ministership for a third consecutive term.