NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political troubles deepened with his Bharatiya Janata Party appearing to lose control of the mineral-rich eastern state of Jharkhand in state poll results out Monday.
The results come as the government struggles to contain growing nationwide protests against a new federal religion-based citizenship law that’s seen at least 24 people killed in clashes between police and demonstrators.
The poor showing will add pressure on the government as it presides over an economy that’s growing at its slowest rate in six years and with unemployment running at the highest in four decades.
Early results from India’s Election Commission indicate the BJP — which currently rules the state — was ahead in 28 seats, well short of a clear majority in the 81-member state assembly. The opposition alliance of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Congress party and other regional groups together led in 42 seats.
In 2014, the BJP had formed the government in the state with an alliance with the All Jharkhand Students Union with a combined 43 seats, but this time chose to contest the elections alone.
Despite a sweeping victory in national elections in May, Modi and the BJP have faced tougher-than-expected battles in the state polls that have followed.
The Jharkhand results come after Maharashtra and Haryana assembly polls in October where the BJP fell short of a clear majority. In Haryana, a BJP-led coalition eventually formed the government for second time, but the party lost control of country’s richest state Maharashtra after a falling out with its regional partner, the Shiv Sena.
In March 2018 the BJP and its allies together controlled 20 states. If it loses Jharkhand, that number will come down to 16, hindering Modi’s efforts to attract foreign investment and revive the slowing economy.
The poll results come as the government faces widespread anger against a new citizenship law it pushed through Parliament on Dec. 11. The new law bars undocumented Muslims from the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh from seeking citizenship while allowing people of other faiths to do so. The protests first erupted in the eastern Assam state where there are fears of an influx of migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Since then the protests have swept across the country with thousands decrying the new law as discriminatory. There are also fears that when joined with a national citizens registry the government had promised, the citizenship law will be used against India’s Muslim minority.
The government has imposed curfew-like conditions across many parts of the country to try and end the demonstrations but to little effect.
Modi staunchly defended the law in an address to a mass rally in the capital New Delhi on Sunday.
He asked voters to thank the Parliament for pushing through the law last week and accused opposition parties of making up lies about the amendments, urging protesters to avoid damaging homes and property. “If you hate Modi take out your anger on Modi,” he said at the launch of his party’s campaign to elect a local government in the national capital region of Delhi.
In his previous rally, Modi stoked tensions further by saying protesters could be identified by their clothes, a reference to headscarves and other Islamic attire.
The protests represent the single biggest challenge Modi has faced in his six-year rule. On Sunday he tried to calm fears about the citizenship law and distance his government from its promise of a national citizens registry.