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India PM mauled in Delhi state election

NEW DELHI: India’s Narendra Modi suffered Tuesday his first major election defeat since becoming prime minister last May, as anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal won a landslide victory in Delhi state polls.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party was headed for a humiliating loss at elections held on the weekend for the Delhi assembly, in a blow to his efforts to consolidate power to push through much-needed economic reforms.

Tallies showed former Delhi chief minister Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) won or was leading in 66 seats in the 70-seat state assembly, with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on just three.

Modi assured Kejriwal of his government’s “complete support” during a congratulatory phone call following his defeat, which analysts said was a blow for a prime minister who has enjoyed an extended honeymoon with voters since his landslide general election victory.

Kejriwal’s win marks a stunning comeback for the anti-graft champion and self-styled anarchist, who resigned following a chaotic 49-day spell in charge of the Delhi state government a year ago.

“Thanks for the unprecedented victory,” Kejriwal, a former tax official-turned politician, told hundreds of cheering supporters outside AAP headquarters in Delhi.

“But it’s very scary, the kind of support the people of Delhi have extended and the mandate we have been given, I appeal to the AAP workers and leaders not to be arrogant,” Kejriwal said, as supporters showered him in petals.

After apologising this month for leaving voters without an elected government for a year, Kejriwal was the star of the election campaign, outshining a former policewoman who was the BJP’s pick for chief minister.

Rattled by Kejriwal’s popularity, Modi headlined several major rallies, portraying his rival as a “backstabber” who betrayed voters last time round by quitting so early.

But Kejriwal’s pledges to tackle entrenched corruption and lower utility bills won over legions of working-class voters willing to give him a second chance.

Congress, which has dominated politics since India’s independence, was suffering another mauling after being thumped at the general election, leading in no seats as vote counting continued.

AAP supporters massed in the streets, dancing, singing and waving national flags along with ones picturing Kejriwal.

“Kejriwal represents pure hard work, dedication. He focuses on doing the ground work first, not just making tall claims,” school basketball coach Sukhdarshan Singh said.

Poulomi Gupta, a 36-year-old accountant, said Kejriwal was a “hero” for the common man.

“It’s not about money or fame for him. He’s put everything on the line for people like you and me and everyone else here,” he said.

– Modi ‘rejection’ –

The BJP has won three state polls since May and could share power following a fourth, mostly on the back of Modi’s popularity.

Modi needs to win even more this year and next to gain control of both houses of the national parliament, where he is attempting to push through reforms on land acquisition, tax and other issues to revive the economy.

States are allocated seats in the upper house, where the BJP lacks a majority.

A BJP spokesman said the results were not a sign of anti-Modi sentiment and the election had been fought solely on local issues.

“There is not an iota of negativity against the NDA (national) government anywhere in the country let alone in Delhi,” spokesman GVL Narasimha Rao told NDTV.

But political analyst Mohan Guruswamy said the results were a “complete rejection of Modi’s politics and personality”.

“Throughout the election campaign he tried to pit himself against Kejriwal and bitterly lost it. The results also announce the demise of Congress,” Guruswamy, head of the Delhi-based thinktank Centre for Policy Alternatives, told AFP.

Kejriwal famously declared himself an anarchist during his brief tenure last year and staged several street protests outside government offices.

After winning plaudits for rejecting the VIP culture of Indian politics, including by taking the metro to his inauguration, his administration lost its sheen, with a raid on a largely African neighbourhood sparking claims of racism.

But Kejriwal won Delhi voters round this time with campaign promises such as free wifi for the capital’s 17 million residents. -AFP

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