The ruling Bharatiya Janata party has lost control of a crucial southern state to the Indian National Congress in a closely watched election, dealing a rare political setback to prime minister Narendra Modi a year before a national poll.

Early results published on Saturday at 8pm by the Election Commission of India showed Congress having won or leading in 136 of the 224 seats that are up for grabs in the Karnataka state assembly.

The BJP had won or was leading in 65 seats, suggesting that Congress would be able to form a government without a coalition partner.

Karnataka is one of India’s wealthiest states and home to the tech hub of Bengaluru. The defeat means the BJP will lose the only state it governs in the country’s south.

Modi personally campaigned for a week ahead of Wednesday’s vote, which both the BJP and Congress described as strategically important. Both parties’ candidates raised issues of religion, caste, the economy and corruption.

“We have been not able to make the mark, in spite of a lot of efforts [that] have been put up by everybody right from our prime minister to the workers,” Basavaraj Bommai, Karnataka’s BJP chief minister, said in remarks conceding defeat that were broadcast online on Saturday.

The results will be a big boost for Congress, which was India’s dominant political party for decades before it was crushed by the BJP in national elections in both 2014 and 2019.

A senior Congress official attributed the party’s win to having fought the campaign on local issues.

“The PM injected divisiveness and attempted polarisation,” Jairam Ramesh, Congress’s general secretary in charge of communications, wrote on Twitter. “The vote in Karnataka is for an engine in Bengaluru that will combine economic growth with social harmony.”

Modi, joined by Amit Shah, his top deputy and home affairs minister, and other officials had campaigned in Karnataka on the strength of delivering “double engine” government for the state, with the BJP in power in both New Delhi and Bengaluru.

Ahead of the polls, the BJP state government scrapped a 4 per cent reservation under affirmative action job quotas for minority Muslims, and reallocated it to two other disadvantaged groups in a move seen as appealing to its Hindu nationalist base. Muslims make up about 13 per cent of Karnataka’s population.

An analyst said that the result was a clear win for Congress, but noted that much of the party’s gains appeared to have come at the expense of Janata Dal (Secular), the third largest party, rather than the BJP.

“This is an emphatic victory for Congress,” said Sugata Srinivasaraju, an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. “But I would not extrapolate this and say 2024 will necessarily be similar because the BJP appears to have retained its vote share.”

Congress had described the Karnataka vote, along with other upcoming state elections, as a stepping stone to rebuilding its base nationally.

Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh in New Delhi

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