Setback for Modi in key India election

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Indian ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on Sunday conceded defeat in a crucial state election widely seen as a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.

An alliance of three parties that includes the main opposition Congress party was leading in 176 of 243 seats in the eastern state of Bihar, according to the Election Commission website at 4:00 pm (1030 GMT).

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party was leading in 53 seats. Modi telephoned incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, who led the winning alliance, to congratulate him on the victory.

Modi had led his party to a landmark win in last year’s national elections, but the Bihar polls were being seen as a referendum of his popularity and policies.

BJP leaders were hoping that a victory in Bihar would help the party muster strength in the parliament to push through key reforms.

The government is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament, which is selected on the basis of parties’ strength in state legislatures.

The defeat proved a major blow for Modi, his party’s second straight loss after losing local elections in Delhi in February. Modi had campaigned extensively in Bihar, addressing at least 30 rallies in the state.

BJP opponents said the results were a reflection of public dissatisfaction with the Modi government’s failure to push through key economic reforms and create jobs for millions of young people.

Sharad Yadav, another leader from the winning alliance, said the results also showed Indians had rejected Modi’s party attempts to push a Hindu agenda, which included calling for bans on killing of cows, considered sacred by Hindus.

But BJP leaders denied this was the case. “This is a state election and not a referendum on federal leadership or government,” BJP leader and minister Prakash Javadekar told broadcaster NDTV.

The results are also expected to revive a beleaguered opposition in the country, including the Congress party.

Yadav said efforts would be made for an alliance of political parties to put up a united front against the BJP at the national level.

Bihar is among India’s most populous and poorest states. A total of 37.9 million voters exercised their franchise in the five-phase elections from October 12 to November 5.

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