India's ruling party yesterday suffered stinging election defeats in three key states, in a big blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of national polls in 2019.
The votes held earlier this month and in November were seen as a dry run for next year's vote when Modi will likely go head-to-head with Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party for a second term.
"We accept the people's mandate with humility," Modi said late yesterday on Twitter.
"We defeated the BJP today, we will defeat them in 2019 too," Indian media quoted Gandhi as saying. "Mr Modi sold a vision to the country five years ago. India had the patience to give them five years. But they have failed."
In both the central state of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in the west, the chief ministers from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceded defeat, while in Madhya Pradesh Congress came out as the largest party with 114 seats. Congress's traditional ally BSP took 2 seats, pushing the alliance seat tally to 116 majority mark in the 230-seat state assembly.
In Chhattisgarh, ruled by the BJP for 15 years, initial results showed the BJP winning just 16 seats, down from 49 in the outgoing parliament, trailing Congress on 68 in the 90-seat state parliament.
Congress also trounced the BJP in Rajasthan, governed since 2013 by the BJP's Vasundhara Raje, an unpopular local princess, winning 99 seats ahead of the BJP on 73 -- 89 fewer than in the last election.
Television footage showed jubilant Congress workers bursting firecrackers and dancing at regional party offices in both states.
In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh the BJP also suffered from voter fatigue after 15 years in office, with Congress set to be two seats short of a majority and five ahead of the BJP.
In two other smaller states also releasing results yesterday, Telangana in the south and remote Mizoram in the northeast, regional parties looked to be leading.
In Telangana the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi won handsomely -- at the expense of Congress. Mizo National Front (MNF), a BJP ally, is all set to form govt in Mizoram as Congress loses its last bastion in North East. The MNF won 26 seats in the 40-member Assembly, a gain of 21 seats since 2013. The Congress managed to bag only five seats compared to 34 seats it won in the 2013 Assembly elections.
But it was Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madyha Pradesh that mattered most for the Hindu nationalist BJP, which swept to power nationally under Modi in 2014.
They form part of the "Hindi Belt" or "Cow Belt" region of around 475 million people -- more than the United States, Canada and Mexico combined -- where the right-wing BJP has its core support base.
Currently the BJP rules 19 out of 29 Indian states either outright or in alliance with local parties. Congress rules just two states, including one in partnership.
But the latest results are a blow to the image of Modi as an invincible vote-winner, and puts the 68-year-old on the back foot months before he seeks a second term in office.
It also strengthen 48-year-old Gandhi -- scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty -- with Congress having lost more than a dozen states to the BJP since Modi took office in 2014.
The Congress yesterday hailed its good showing in assembly polls in three Hindi heartland states and thanked people for choosing "love over hate".
"Democracy has won! Thank you India, you have chosen love over hate, peace over violence & truth over lies. This victory is yours," read a tweet on the party's official Twitter handle.
Analysts have linked the BJP's apparent dwindling support to growing rural distress and unemployment rates in the country. Nearly 55 percent of India's 1.25 billion population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture, and farmers form an important voting bloc for parties.