India’s ruling party looked set Tuesday for stinging election defeats in at least two stronghold states, in a big blow to prime minister Narendra Modi ahead of national polls in 2019.
The votes held earlier this month and in November were seen as a dry run for next year’s vote when Modi will likely go head-to-head with Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party for a second term.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party for 15 years, chief minister Raman Singh conceded defeat after early results showed the BJP trailing Congress by some 50 seats in the 90-seat state assembly.
Congress also looked to have secured a majority in Rajasthan, led by the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje, an unpopular local princess, with 102 seats, leading the BJP by 30 seats despite Modi having campaigned actively in the western desert state.
In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh the BJP also suffered from voter fatigue after 15 years in office, with Congress set to be three seats short of a majority and four ahead of the BJP.
Television footage showed jubilant Congress workers bursting firecrackers and dancing at regional party offices in both states.
In two other smaller states also releasing results Tuesday, Telangana in the south and remote Mizoram in the northeast, regional parties looked to be leading.
Congress’s five-time Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla was routed by the regional Mizo National Front, a BJP ally. In Telangana the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi won handsomely — at the expense of Congress.
But it was Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madyha Pradesh that mattered most for the Hindu nationalist BJP, which swept to power nationally under Modi in 2014.
They form part of the ‘Hindi Belt’ or ‘Cow Belt’ region of around 475 million people — more than the United States, Canada and Mexico combined — where the right-wing BJP has its core support base.
Currently the BJP rules 19 out of 29 Indian states either outright or in alliance with local parties. Congress rules just two states, including one in partnership.
But the latest results are a blow to the image of Modi as an invincible vote-winner, and puts the 68-year-old on the back foot months before he seeks a second term in office.
It also strengthen 48-year-old Gandhi — scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty — with Congress having lost more than a dozen states to the BJP since Modi took office in 2014.
The results could also help his party cobble together a grand alliance of smaller parties to take on the BJP next year, with Gandhi at its head.
Analysts have linked the BJP’s apparent dwindling support to growing rural distress and unemployment rates in the country.
Nearly 55 per cent of India’s 1.25 billion population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture, and farmers form an important voting bloc for parties.
‘It once again shows the voter can use his franchise to raise their voice,’ Gurpreet Mahajan, a political scientist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University said.
‘The verdict is the cumulative result of the issues faced by people in these states.’
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