Narendra Modi conceded defeat Sunday in a key regional election in one of India’s most populous states, a result that comes as a major blow to the prime minister’s vote-winning appeal.
Partial results showed Modi’s Hindu nationalist party was badly lagging in the Bihar state assembly vote, with only 53 of the 243 available seats, compared to 176 for a coalition of rival regional parties. The charismatic premier had turned the Bihar poll into a test of his popularity, addressing dozens of rallies and promising voters billions of dollars for development in a poor state where two thirds of the population does not have access to electricity.
Analysts said the failure would embolden the opposition and increase concern among some in Modi’s own party over his once-charmed ability to deliver at the ballot box. The defeat is also a setback to his plans to push major economic reforms through the national parliament where his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lacks a majority.
Parties that win assembly elections gain seats in India’s upper house.
Modi said he had spoken with his main rival, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and “congratulated him on the victory” after a bitter campaign. As the contest tightened in recent weeks, the campaign shifted to issues along religious and caste lines, which have traditionally dominated the state of 100 million people, more than the population of Germany.
“Mr. Modi fronted the campaign and he couldn’t manage to pull it off. If anyone has to take the blame, it has to be him and [BJP president] Amit Shah,” said analyst Sanjay Kumar. “But this is also a credit to Nitish Kumar’s record of development in Bihar,” said Kumar, head of the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies.
Kumar, a long-time critic of Modi, has been praised for kickstarting development and attempting to quash corruption during his first two terms in office.
Modi, with his one-man leadership style, won over legions of voters at the general election in 2014, storming to power promising sweeping reforms to revive the faltering economy. Growth is now purring along at seven percent.
But complaints have been mounting about his failure to nail down major reforms to boost investment and help create jobs for India’s tens of millions of young people. The BJP needed a win in Bihar after suffering a humiliating defeat in February elections for the Delhi state assembly to a fledgling anti-corruption party.
The loss comes just days before Modi heads to Britain for talks with his U.K. counterpart and to address a massive crowd of Indian diaspora at Wembley Stadium.
BJP spokesman GVL Narsimha Rao denied the loss was a personal blow for Modi, saying the odds were stacked against their party after regional rivals joined forces. “This election was loaded against us. It is a defeat of the arithmetic,” Rao told India Today TV. “Our P.M. has delivered even in this election. It is because of his appeal that we managed a creditable performance,” Rao said.
Modi was up against an unlikely alliance of two powerful Bihar leaders, Kumar and his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has served time in prison for corruption.
In state capital Patna, Kumar and Yadav hugged each other on stage, as supporters celebrated in the streets with dancing and firecrackers. “The people of Bihar thumped the BJP. It’s a lesson for the party,” Yadav said.
The Bihar campaign has been dogged by religious tensions after several Muslims were killed in separate incidents elsewhere in the country by Hindu mobs who suspected them of stealing or eating cows, animals that Hindus consider sacred. Although Modi appealed for unity during the campaign, critics accused his government of failing to rein in Hindu hardliners.
Analysts said Muslims, who make up 15 percent of Bihar’s population, voted against the BJP, along with lower castes who sided with traditional allies Kumar and Yadav.