NEW DELHI — India’s main opposition Congress party wrested control of the crucial southern Karnataka state from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, according to a near complete vote count Saturday that boosted its prospects ahead of national elections due next year.
The poll results are expected to energize the largely divided opposition that is banking on forming a united front to challenge Modi in next year’s general election in which he will seek to extend his prime ministership for a third consecutive term. They will also help prospects of the Congress party, which was routed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the last two national polls and is striving to regain its political prominence nationwide.
The defeat in Karnataka means Modi’s party, which was banking on his popularity, has lost 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.
With vote counting continuing, India’s Election Commission said the Congress had crossed the majority mark of 113 in the state assembly by winning 123 seats and leading in 12 other constituencies. Modi’s party won or was leading in 64 seats. Another regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular), won 20 seats.
Karnataka, one of the wealthiest states in India, voted on Wednesday and full results are expected later Saturday.
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.
Jairam Ramesh, the Congress general secretary, attributed the party’s win to having fought the election campaign on local issues of “livelihood and food security, price rise, farmer distress, electricity supply, joblessness, and corruption.”
“The PM injected divisiveness and attempted polarisation. The vote in Karnataka is for an engine in Bengaluru that will combine economic growth with social harmony,” Ramesh wrote on Twitter.
Bengaluru, the state capital, is India’s information technology hub and a sought-after workplace for young professionals.
“The markets of hate have been shut down and the shops of love have opened,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told reporters at the party headquarters in New Delhi, where his jubilant supporters and party members burst firecrackers and danced to the beat of drums.
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% of Karnataka’s people were Hindu, almost 13% Muslim and less than 2% 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. It also scrapped a 4% reservation in job and education quotas for Muslims and distributed them to two Hindu caste groups.
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 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.
This story originally appeared on NPR