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High-stakes state election in India ends with no clear winner

Posted May 15, 2018 5:11 a.m. EDT
Updated May 15, 2018 2:27 p.m. EDT

— Results of a closely watched state election in India, widely seen as a test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity after more than four years in office, showed no clear winner Tuesday, setting of a flurry of political jockeying as rival parties vie for power.

Latest results complied by India's election authorities showed that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won the most assembly seats in the state of Karnataka, after a high-stakes contest with local parties and India's main opposition Congress Party.

But by winning only 103 of the 222 seats up for grabs, the BJP fell short of an outright majority. The Congress Party took 78 seats, while the local Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS Party won 37 seats, triggering hurried coalition talks between the two as they seek to keep the BJP out of power in the state.

Results from one seat remained outstanding at the time of publication amid indications that the BJP was leading there. The remaining seats went to smaller parties and independent candidates.

The pressure-filled day began with the BJP leading in a majority of seats. But their gains fell away during the afternoon, creating an opening for an opposition coalition as the Congress joined hands with the JDS in a bid to form the next government in Karnataka.

Both the BJP and the opposition coalition have approached the Karnataka governor --- the top constitutional authority in the state --- seeking to form the government. It remains unclear which side the governor will invite.

The race had been expected to be tight, with pollsters predicting that no party would gain a majority of seats in the legislative assembly.

From the start, it was seen as a test for Modi, and for Rahul Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party, who is seeking to position himself as challenger to Modi ahead of national elections in 2019.

The formation of a BJP government would be seen as a disaster for Gandhi and the Congress, which was in power in the state before these elections and has long considered southern India a stronghold.

Should the BJP be able to form a government in Karnataka, Congress would govern only two of India's 29 states and one union territory. The BJP currently controls 21 states, either by itself or as part of an alliance.

Both Modi and Gandhi invested significant political capital in Tuesday's race, and the two leaders tried to score points attacking the other.

Modi accused Gandhi of nepotism, and having no other qualifications other than the fact that he was born to a family of previous Indian rulers. Gandhi in return attacked the Prime Minister on the lackluster state of the economy and the growing Hindu-Muslim divide in the country.

Congress leaders visited local temples in the state to fight the perception that the party was anti-Hindu, while the BJP paraded a string of heavy-hitting national leaders across the state in a bid to drum up support.

More than 70% of Karnataka's more than 60 million people voted, the first of four major states that go to the polls this year.

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