NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's federal ruling party was trailing in early vote counting in elections for control of India's capital Delhi, the most significant test of his popularity after his religion-based citizenship law led to widespread protests across the country.
The Aam Aadmi Party, led-by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, looked set to retain power, maintaining the lead in 58 seats in the 70-member assembly, Election Commission data showed on Tuesday (Feb 11).
Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party was ahead in 12 seats. The Congress party had not won a seat so far in the election, which took place Saturday.
The BJP unleashed an aggressive campaign to win Delhi, where it hasn't formed a government for some 22 years, with Mr Modi and his home minister Amit Shah leading the charge.
The run-up to the polls was marked by divisive speeches and calls to violence by some members of his party. The city saw at least three shooting attacks near an area where thousands of people have been demonstrating against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
If the final result goes against Mr Modi's party it will be in keeping with a recent trend of the BJP losing states to regional parties and opposition alliances.
Just eight months after winning a landslide victory in federal elections, Delhi would be the third straight electoral setback for the BJP after losses in the richest state Maharashtra and the mineral-rich eastern province Jharkhand last year.
The new religion-based citizenship act, which was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, fast-tracks citizenship for religious minorities from three neighbouring countries, but excludes Muslims.
Protesters say the law undermines India's secular constitution while the government says its aim is to protect persecuted minorities.
The Delhi elections also come at a time when the nation is facing slowing economic growth and a surging unemployment rate.
The Aam Aadmi Party, formed in 2012 after a popular anti-corruption movement, has focused its campaign on local civic issues including water supply, cheap electricity and education.
While on paper Delhi has little say in national affairs - accounting for about 1 per cent of all parliamentary seats - its position at the heart of Indian power gives it outsized importance and a failure to capture power in the capital city will likely demoralise the BJP's ground workers.