Ayaz Rahi / AP
NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition Congress party wrested control of the southern state of Karnataka from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, according to a near-complete vote count on Saturday, boosting its prospects ahead of next year’s national election.
The poll results are expected to energize the largely divided opposition, which is scrambling to form a united front to challenge Modi in next year’s general election, where he will seek a third consecutive term as prime minister. They will also help the prospects of the Congress party, which was ousted by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the last two national elections and is seeking to regain its political footing nationwide.
The defeat in Karnataka means Modi’s party, which had buoyed his popularity, has lost the only southern state it has ever controlled, where his fiercely Hindu nationalist policies have found relatively slower acceptance than the rest of the country. In the past few weeks, Modi has campaigned aggressively in Karnataka, home to 65 million people, and has crisscrossed the state holding massive road shows.
As the counting of votes continues, the Election Commission of India said the Congress crossed the 113 majority threshold in the state assembly, winning 123 seats and leading in 12 other constituencies. Modi’s party has won or is leading in 64 seats. Another regional party, Janata Dal (Secular), won 20 seats.
Karnataka, one of India’s wealthiest states, voted on Wednesday, with full results expected later on Saturday.
Karnataka is the second state that Modi’s party has lost to the Congress in the last six months. In December, the Congress defeated the BJP in northern Himachal Pradesh, a small state tucked into the Himalayas.
Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh attributed the party’s victory to fighting the election campaign on local issues of “livelihood and food security, price hikes, farmers’ distress, power supply, unemployment and corruption”.
“The prime minister has injected division and tried to polarize. In Karnataka, the vote in Bengaluru is for an engine that will combine economic growth with social harmony,” Ramesh tweeted.
Bengaluru, the state capital, is India’s information technology hub and a sought-after workplace for young professionals.
“The markets of hate have closed and the shops of love have opened,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters at party headquarters in New Delhi, where jubilant supporters and party members burst firecrackers and danced to the beat of drums.
Over the past few years, Modi’s party has sought 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% of Karnataka’s population was Hindu, nearly 13% Muslim, and less than 2% Christian.
Initially, Modi’s party promised to promote development and woo voters with social welfare measures. However, ahead of the election, it veered towards Hindu nationalism, its usual campaign game, and accused the Congress of neglecting Hindu values and appeasing minority groups, especially Muslims. It also scrapped the 4% reservation of job and education quotas for Muslims and distributed them to two Hindu caste groups.
The Congress built its campaign targeting Modi’s party over allegations of rising inflation, corruption and poor infrastructure development in the state, while promising electricity subsidies, rations for poor families and financial aid for unemployed graduates.
The polls were also seen as another clash between Modi and Gandhi, the heir to the leadership of the dynastic Congress party, who was convicted of making defamatory remarks about the prime minister’s surname at a 2019 election rally. This led to Gandhi’s expulsion from Parliament. in March, and he risks losing his eligibility to run in elections for the next eight years if the court overturns his conviction.
Late last year, Gandhi embarked on a 3,500km (2,185-mile) walking tour of Indian cities, towns and villages to rejuvenate the party and win popular 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 next year’s national elections.