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Loss in India’s Key State Poll a Setback for Modi

  • Anjana Pasricha

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, center, greets supporters after victory in Bihar state elections Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, center, greets supporters after victory in Bihar state elections Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered a crushing defeat in a key poll in Bihar, one of the country’s largest and most underdeveloped states.

The decisive loss signals a decline in his popularity, and could be a setback to his economic reform agenda.

The contest between the BJP and an alliance of regional parties in India’s third most populous state was expected to be close, but when votes were tallied Sunday, the BJP was trailing in more than two thirds of the seats in the 243 seat state assembly.

Early Signs of BJP Defeat

Modi conceded defeat early in the day. Although a regional poll, the Bihar election turned into a referendum on the prime minister after he criss crossed the state addressing numerous election rallies.

Modi was banking on his reputation as a hugely charismatic leader, after securing the largest mandate in national elections in 30 years, he went on to clinch victories in several states last year.

But the massive defeat in Bihar has dented that image. It is the second major electoral setback for Modi. Earlier this year the BJP was also routed in elections held in Delhi.

“Fact remains that now his vote-catching image or invincibility has been decisively demolished. Now he is one among equals,” says Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Supporters of an alliance of parties opposed to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate victory in Bihar state elections Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

Supporters of an alliance of parties opposed to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate victory in Bihar state elections Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

Tough contest for Modi

Winning Bihar had been an uphill task, the regional leaders, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav who emerged victorious, have been rivals who, between them, have controlled the state for the past 25 years. But they came together to take on Modi and successfully persuaded a state that votes heavily on caste lines to stay with them.

The loss in Bihar will make it harder for Modi to press ahead with key economic reforms as it will further embolden opposition parties, who have blocked these measures for months.

Defeat to hurt PM's future plans

The results have dealt a blow to his party’s hopes of improving its numbers in the upper house of parliament, which is needed to pass key pending legislation on tax reform.

Political analysts are calling on Modi, who is criticized for being arrogant, to make a course correction and reach out to opposition parties to ensure that the agenda for development and good governance he wants to pursue does not suffer at the national level.

“He will have to bow down to the verdict of Bihar and pursue an accommodative and adjustive kind of politics now. If he approaches issues with this spirit of accommodativeness and adjustment, then the opposition will cooperate with him to push economic reforms”, says analyst Satish Misra.
Political analysts say the BJP also suffered in Bihar due to a rising tide of religious intolerance blamed on fringe Hindu groups.

A BJP leader, Ram Madhav, attributed the loss to several reasons, but conceded that this could have been one factor. “One is we have suffered a major perception problem. I do not agree that either we are an intolerant bunch or that we promote intolerant politics, but this perception that was sought to be created has probably had some impact,” Madhav said to a national TV network.

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