India’s ruling party lost power in three key states on Tuesday, dealing Prime Minister Narendra Modi his biggest defeat since he took office in 2014 and boosting the opposition ahead of general elections next year.
The results in the northern states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh could force the federal government run by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to raise spending in the countryside, where more than two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people live.
Political analysts said the BJP’s defeat underscores rural dismay with the government and could help unite the opposition led by the Congress party.
Modi's image has been weakened... The message of these election results is that he is not infallible
Sanjay Jha, a spokesman of the Congress party, said that farmers’ distress, joblessness of the youth and rising inequalities in the society were the main agenda during the elections.
He told Al Jazeera that the attacks on the Dalits and the minorities under the BJP governments also made electorate turn away from the right-wing party.
Activists and opposition parties have accused the BJP of running a divisive campaign and allowing Hindu far-right groups to run amok on the issue of cow slaughter, which is a crime in most Indian states.
Dozens of people, a majority of them Muslims, have been killed by so-called cow vigilantes in the past four years since Modi took power.
The Hindu nationalist party deployed Yogi Adityanath, known for his vitriolic anti-Muslims rhetoric, as the chief campaigner in the state elections. Adityanath, a monk-turned politician, was appointed the chief minister of India’s most populous and politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017.
There is a feeling among people that the promises made by the prime minister ... have not been fulfilled
A legislator for the BJP said it had erred in focusing its campaign on partisan themes, such as the building of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya at a site disputed by Muslims, instead of offering jobs and growth.
“We forgot the issue of development that Modi took up in 2014,” said Sanjay Kakade.
Jha, the Congress spokesman, said: “The BJP has collapsed on the [issue of] governance… and just tried to polarise elections by playing communal politics.”
Prime Minister Modi late on Tuesday congratulated the Congress and other regional parties for their victories.
“We accept the people’s mandate with humility,” he tweeted.
“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.”
The Congress party is all set to form governments in the states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan after getting majority while it emerged as the single largest party in Madhya Pradesh.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh, Congress won 68 of the 90 seats at stake, with the BJP managing to get only 15, according to data from the Election Commission of India.
The mineral-rich state has been ruled by the BJP for three consecutive terms.
The Congress won 101 of the 199 seats contested, against 73 for the incumbent BJP in Rajasthan.
In Madhya Pradesh, the most important of the five states that have held assembly elections in recent weeks, Congress emerged victorious on 114 seats, while the BJP managed to hold on to 108 out of 230 seats. Two regional parties have already extended support to the Congress party boosting its chances of forming a government after 15 years of the BJP rule.
The results came as a shot in the arm for Rahul Gandhi, president of the Congress party, who is trying to forge a broad alliance with regional groups and present Modi with his most serious challenge yet in a general election due by May.
Congress has ruled India for most of its post-independence era after 1947 but was decimated by Modi’s BJP in national polls in 2014. Since then, it had struggled to make inroads into even state polls.
Gandhi, the fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, has sought to build a coalition of regional groups.
On Tuesday, celebrations erupted outside the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi, with supporters dancing, setting off firecrackers and brandishing posters praising Gandhi.
“We are going to provide the states with a vision and a government they can be proud of,” Gandhi told reporters at a press conference in New Delhi.
“There is a feeling among people that the promises made by the prime minister … have not been fulfilled.”
Analysts believe that the verdict is indicative that people are no more buying the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) ideology.
“In the past five years, a vast section of people across caste, region and religion realised that they have got nothing. There are no jobs and development,” political analyst Sajjan Singh said.
Modi government’s decision to ban high denomination currency notes in 2016, Singh said, was “a suicidal move”, which brought “unimagined difficulties upon rural and weaker sections”.
“The cash-based rural and informal sector economy which sustains a large part of the Indian society has been destroyed,” he told Al Jazeera.
The botched implementation of a federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) last year has angered small traders.
Regional parties won in two smaller states that also voted – Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) registered a thumping victory in Telangana state, while in Mizoram state, the Mizo National Front trounced the Congress party.
In the past five years, a vast section of people across caste, region and religion realised that they have got nothing. There are no jobs and development
Maoist rebels have been running decades-long armed rebellion in the state against what they say is the exploitation of the mineral resources by the corporates.
Modi has been criticised for failing to deliver jobs for young people and better conditions for farmers – issues that opposition is likely to raise during the general elections less than six months away.
The BJP, however, said the state results would not affect its prospects in the general elections.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told ANI news agency that BJP leadership and cadres would “pause and analyse the results and take corrective steps” that may be required before the polls.
But political commentator Apoorvanand said “the election results will have a psychological impact on the voters” during the upcoming elections.
“It is a signal to many who believed that the BJP could not be defeated,” Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University, said.
“Modi’s image has been weakened. He looks frustrated and fallen. The message of these election results is that he is not infallible.”