India’s Congress scrambles to block PM’s party to form govt in key state

Supporters of Bhartya Janata Party dance to music as they celebrate their candidates victory in the Karnataka legislative assembly election in Bangalore, India, on Tuesday. — EPA

NEW DELHI — India’s opposition Congress party suffered a major electoral blow in its last major state on Tuesday and was scrambling to build a coalition to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party taking over.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led the count in Karnataka but fell short of a clear majority in the state of 60 million people, which includes the wealthy global IT hub of Bangalore.

The result is being closely watched before a national election next year.

The BJP had won 87 seats by Tuesday afternoon and was leading in 17 others, according to figures from the Election Commission of India.

Modi’s party needs 113 seats to secure a majority and complete the humiliation of Congress, which was tipped to win 78 seats, a huge fall from 122 in the previous assembly.

Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, announced it would offer “unconditional support” to the third-placed regional party Janata Dal (Secular) to form a government.

“That’s the best way to keep the BJP out of power,” incumbent Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah told reporters in Bangalore.

A Congress-Janata Dal alliance should have a majority in the 224-member assembly.

The BJP accused Congress of betraying voters to salvage its “pathetic defeat”.

“Congress, despite having been rejected by the people, is trying to gain a backdoor entry,” B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for Karnataka, told reporters.

A record 70 percent of the nearly 50 million voters turned out in Saturday’s election.

Congress, which lost control of the national government to Modi in 2014 is desperate to cling on to Karnataka.

Without it the party would control only three states — Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram — which together account for just 2.5 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people.

The BJP rules 21 out of India’s 29 states. Since its landslide national win in 2014 the Modi juggernaut has stormed northern India, claiming around a dozen crushing state victories.

Modi and Gandhi traded barbs at rallies before tens of thousands in the Karnataka campaign.

Gandhi, the scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, had hoped Karnataka would be his first election victory since taking over as Congress leader from his mother Sonia this year.

A government in Karnataka led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will help Modi silence critics who said his popularity had waned after the rocky adoption of a nationwide sales tax and a sudden ban on high-value notes late in 2016.

“The result provides some reassurance to the BJP that its popularity remains intact,” said Shilan Shah, a senior India economist at Capital Economics.

“That could embolden the government to pursue reforms in future, including loosening foreign direct investment restrictions and moves towards privatization.”

It also gives the BJP a southern beachhead, besides its core base in India’s north and west.

In the last four years, Modi has moved to boost the economy, but shied away from politically-sensitive reforms to revamp the labor sector and land acquisition, which the World Bank called for in March.

His government faced sniping in recent weeks over soaring fuel prices, a decision to privatize state carrier Air India and a lack of jobs for millions of young workforce entrants each year.

But Modi’s victory in Karnataka, where he led the party campaign, showed he remains the top vote-getter in Indian politics, leaving Rahul Gandhi, the young leader of the main opposition Congress party, struggling.

A Pew survey in November found Modi still trumps Gandhi in popularity, with nine of 10 Indians expressing a favorable opinion of him and more than two-thirds satisfied with his direction for the country.

“The win definitely enhances the prospect of Prime Minister Modi for another term,” said political commentator N. Ram.

The benchmark 50-share NSE index extended gains during the morning session to trade more than 1 percent higher as results pointed to success for the BJP.

Karnataka, with a population of 66 million, is home to the technology hub of Bengaluru. It is the first major state electing an assembly this year, to be followed by three more.

Celebrations erupted outside the party headquarters in Bengaluru, with supporters shouting victory slogans and waving the party’s flag as the results trickled in. — Agencies