By Bibhudatta Pradhan
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is set to lose control of the key southern state of Karnataka to the opposition Indian National Congress, indicating his ruling party could have a tough fight ahead as it looks to win a third term in national elections next year.
His Bharatiya Janata Party was leading in only 65 seats in the 224-member assembly for which voting took place on May 10, according to the Election Commission of India. Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party was set to win a comfortable majority, leading in 133 seats.
This is the Congress’s second time ousting the BJP from power in a state election in a decade. Last year it wrested control of the northern hill state of Himachal Pradesh. A final tally from the Election Commission of India will be announced later Saturday.
The state Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai conceded the BJP had not been able to make a mark.
“We will do a detailed analysis as the results conclude,” he told reporters. “We will take these results in our stride and try to reorganize the party for next year’s Lok Sabha elections.”
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The outcome in Karnataka, home to the country’s IT hub of Bengaluru, could set the tone for the 2024 general election. It’s a boost for the Congress, routed by the BJP in the last two national polls and indicates that issues like high inflation and unemployment are hurting Modi’s party. The prime minister was one of the prominent campaigners for his party.
A loss in the only state in southern India where it held power indicates that the BJP and its brand of Hindu nationalism have not made a significant impact in the region.
However, the verdict in the longtime swing state is not a complete barometer of the public mood in the rest of India, where Modi and his party rule a majority of states. Other provincial polls due later this year will also provide pointers to the national mood.
“The BJP’s loss in the state can be blamed on local bread-and-butter issues, joblessness and corruption allegations,” said Shumita Deveshwar, senior director of India research at TS Lombard. “With Prime Minister Modi’s popularity ratings consistently high, Karnataka’s loss won’t create any significant dent in his image.”
In Karnataka the face-off was between Modi and Gandhi, the scion of India’s famous Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, who was convicted for making defamatory remarks about the prime minister’s last name in 2019. The conviction led to Gandhi’s ouster from parliament earlier this year.
The BJP, grappling with high prices and corruption allegations, was banking on Modi’s popularity to hold onto power in one of the country’s wealthiest states. The Congress’s campaign promises included direct cash benefits for women and free electricity.
Karnataka has been a swing state since 1985. While the BJP has won a significant number of seats here before, enough to form the government multiple times, it has never managed a clear majority.
The stakes were even higher for the Congress party, which suffered back-to-back wipeouts in the last two general elections, along with defeats in a series of recently-held state polls.
“A Congress victory will be a big morale boost to an opposition that seems weak and fragmented just a year before the general elections,” Deveshwar said. “Still, it is a long, tough road for the opposition to New Delhi. The party needs many more wins to be seen as a strong competitor to the BJP at the national level.”