Modi Loses India Swing State, Boosting Gandhi Before 2024 Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceded a loss in the southern swing state of Karnataka, a rare victory for Rahul Gandhi’s opposition Congress party as it looks to build momentum ahead of national elections next year.

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Congress took 135 seats in the 224-member assembly, its biggest victory against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in major state elections since the prime minister took power in 2014. The BJP won 66 seats, according to the Election Commission of India.

“Congratulations to the Congress Party for their victory in the Karnataka Assembly polls,” Modi, who campaigned prominently in a state that boasts the IT hub of Bengaluru, said in a Twitter post. “My best wishes to them in fulfilling people’s aspirations.”

The election in Karnataka, the only southern state in which Modi’s BJP held power, was the first of several key state elections testing the national mood ahead of the 2024 vote. While Congress has been routed in the last two national polls, high inflation and unemployment are stirring discontent in the nation of 1.4 billion people.

“A Congress victory will be a big morale boost to an opposition that seems weak and fragmented just a year before the general elections,” said Shumita Deveshwar, senior director of India research at TS Lombard. “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.”

The Karnataka vote saw Modi face off directly against 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 verdict led to Gandhi’s ouster from parliament earlier this year.

The results indicate that Gandhi’s constant public outreach is making an impression on voters. He completed a 2,170-mile nationwide trek earlier this year to rally support for the party.

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. Congress 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 BJP’s loss in the state can be blamed on local bread-and-butter issues, joblessness and corruption allegations,” Deveshwar said. “With Prime Minister Modi’s popularity ratings consistently high, Karnataka’s loss won’t create any significant dent in his image.”

--With assistance from Akshay Chinchalkar and Anto Antony.

(Updates with final poll results in second paragaph)

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