Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday suffered a bitter defeat in a major regional election he had staked his personal popularity on winning for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP lost elections in the eastern state of Bihar to an alliance of rival parties. Bihar, the third-most populous state in the country with 99 million people, is one of India's poorest states but is part of the central cow belt that has always influenced federal politics.
Mr Modi, who addressed more than two dozen rallies in the state ahead of the polls, yesterday accepted defeat and congratulated Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United), who returns to power for a third term.
Mr Kumar's alliance, which includes the opposition Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), was winning in 178 seats while the BJP alliance was at 58 seats in the 243-member state assembly.
Workers from the winning alliance distributed sweets and smeared colour on one another and danced in the streets of Patna, the capital of Bihar.
Mr Kumar is a popular regional leader with a proven governance record who over the past decade brought development and improved law and order to the state.
Mr Kumar, 64, who had tied up with the RJD, attracted a large number of voters from lower castes and Muslims, analysts said.
The BJP denied that the vote was a referendum on Mr Modi or the federal government.
"This is a state election and not a referendum on central (federal) leadership or government," senior BJP leader and environment minister Prakash Javadekar told an Indian television channel.
Still, the defeat opened up Mr Modi, whose political invincibility was first shattered following the BJP's loss in Delhi elections in February, to direct criticism from political rivals and at least one ally.
BJP ally Shiv Sena asked Mr Modi to take responsibility for the loss, while Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal asked Mr Modi to "stop foreign tours and start working now".
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi said: "The entire nation is telling Shri Modi to stop speeches and campaigning and start working... You can't win elections by pitting Hindus against Muslims."
The Bihar campaign took place amid rising communal tension following the lynching of a Muslim blacksmith by a Hindu mob that thought he had beef in his house. More than 60 writers, playwrights and directors returned national level awards to protest against rising religious intolerance triggered by hardline Hindu activists emboldened by the BJP's rise to power.
"The actions of the Hindu right have hit the BJP in Bihar as has the slow pace of reforms. Reforms have not taken place as promised," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.