The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered stinging election defeats in at least two stronghold states, results showed on Tuesday, in a big blow to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before national polls next year.
The votes held earlier this month and last month were seen as a dress rehearsal for next year, when Modi is likely to go head-to-head with Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi for a second term.
“We accept the people’s mandate with humility,” Modi said late on Tuesday on Twitter.
“I thank the people of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan for giving us the opportunity to serve these states. The BJP Governments in these states worked tirelessly for the welfare of the people,” he wrote.
“We defeated the BJP today; we will defeat them in 2019 too,” local media quoted Gandhi as saying.
“Mr Modi sold a vision to the country five years ago. India had the patience to give them five years, but they have failed,” he added.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in the west, the chief ministers from BJP conceded defeat, while in Madhya Pradesh the outcome was on a knife-edge.
In Chhattisgarh, ruled by the BJP for 15 years, initial results showed the party winning just 16 seats, down from 49 in the outgoing parliament, trailing Congress on 68 in the 90-seat state parliament.
Congress also trounced the BJP in Rajasthan, governed since 2013 by the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje, an unpopular local princess, winning 99 seats ahead of the BJP on 73 — 89 fewer than in the last election.
Television footage showed jubilant Congress workers bursting firecrackers and dancing at regional party offices in both states.
In Madhya Pradesh the BJP also suffered from voter fatigue after 15 years in office, with Congress set to be two seats short of a majority and five ahead of the BJP.
In two other smaller states, Telangana in the south and remote Mizoram in the northeast, regional parties looked to be leading.
Congress’ 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.
However, it was Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya 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 about 475 million people — more than the US, Canada and Mexico combined — where the right-wing BJP has its core support base.
Before the recent five elections, the BJP ruled 19 out of 29 Indian states either outright or in alliance with local parties. Congress rules just two states, including one in partnership.
However, the latest results are a blow to the image of Modi as an invincible vote-winner and puts him on the back foot months before he seeks a second term in office.
They 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, led by Gandhi.
“The message [from voters] is very clear. [Modi] needs to address the main issues of employment, corruption, and damage to economic structures,” Gandhi said.
Analysts have linked the BJP’s dwindling support to growing rural distress and unemployment.
Nearly 55 percent of India’s 1.25 billion population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture, and farmers form an important voting bloc for parties.
“The verdict is the cumulative result of the issues faced by people in these states,” said Gurpreet Mahajan, a political scientist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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