BJP set for defeat in two key state elections, in blow to Modi ahead of national vote

India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Tuesday lost three key state elections to the opposition Congress party, in a blow to the momentum of prime minister Narendra Modi ahead of a national poll in the spring. 

The opposition Congress Party is now set to succeed BJP governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and the crucial state of Madhya Pradesh, in the biggest defeat for Mr Modi since taking office in 2014.

The three rural heartland states powered Mr Modi to a landslide victory in that years general election, in which the BJP singlehandedly secured a parliamentary majority for the first time in 30 years, bringing an era of coalition governments to a close.

"We accept the people’s mandate with humility," Mr Modi wrote on Twitter. "Victory and defeat are an integral part of life. Today’s results will further our resolve to serve people and work even harder for the development of India." 

Analysts said the BJP’s dissatisfying performance would galvanise the secularist Congress and other regional parties in the run-up to general elections that must be held by next May.

“The electoral outcome in these three states could seriously dent the BJP’s political fortunes in the upcoming general elections,” said political analyst Seema Mustafa of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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The results indicate that voters have not been wholly convinced that Mr Modi has fulfilled ambitious promises on taking office of economic security, employment and improved social services.

Millions of farmers were the worst hit section of voters in all states where polling took place for several weeks till 7 December.   “Agrarian distress was the BJP’s bane in these polls,” said Milind Dero of the Congress Party.

Around 12,000 farmers have committed suicide each year since 2013 – or around 33 per day- because of debt, declining crop procurement prices, rising fertiliser and fuel costs and corruption.

Farmers in all three states that went to the polls were also adversely affected by the demonetisation of high value currency notes that Modi abruptly imposed in November 2016, leading to widespread hardship.

It forced farmers, almost entirely dependent on a cash-based rural system to take on further debt, which in turn, prompted scores to take their lives largely by consuming pesticide.

The Congress Party wins were also a major boost for the political credibility and standing of Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation 48-year old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who took charge of his party from mother Sonia exactly a year ago.

Many analysts and Congress Party insiders had previously dismissed Mr Gandhi as a “light weight” politician, mocking his many public gaffes, but today’s state election outcome is leading to a reassessment.

“Rahul Gandhi should get full credit,” said Congress Party leader Shashi Tharoor, who campaigned against the party’s leader, adding that Mr Gandhi’s hard-fought campaigning had won him over. 

State-level elections are not perfect indicators of the national mood, analysts noted, but the BJP setbacks are a reversal of the trend that has seen it increase the number of states it controls since 2014.

In Rajasthan, initial results showed the Congress Party with 99 seats to the BJP’s 73 – 89 fewer than in the last election. And in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, politically the most vital of all states that went to the polls, Congress had taken 113 seats to the BJP’s 111, out of 230. 

In Chhattisgarh the Congress Party was ahead in 68 constituencies in a 90-member assembly with the BJP on just 16.

Responding to the tallies, a BJP member of India’s upper house, Sanjay Kakade, said:  “I am of the opinion the BJP should stick to the development agenda and not to caste, changing names of cities, or temples. We need to revert to the track of development.”

The Election Commission will formally declare the final results today (Weds).