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Modi's woes deepen as BJP loses state polls in Jharkhand

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The Jharkhand poll results come as the Indian 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.

New Delhi

INDIA'S Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political troubles deepened with his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) losing control of the mineral-rich eastern state of Jharkhand in 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.

The BJP has conceded defeat in Jharkhand, with an alliance of the main opposition Congress party and a regional bloc slated to take control of the province.

"I dedicate this victory to the people of Jharkhand," Hemant Soren, leader of the regional Jharkhand Mukti Morcha party, said after claiming victory.

A narrative could now start building against the invincibility of the BJP, health of the government and the popularity of Modi," said Rahul Verma, a researcher at Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research who has written a book about ideology in Indian politics. "Every election that the BJP loses gives some respite to its political opponents. A win in a mineral-rich state like Jharkhand, just like the one in rich Maharashtra, will by default add to the opposition parties' psychological and monetary resources to fight elections."

Despite a sweeping victory in national elections in May, Mr Modi and the BJP have faced a tougher-than-expected battles in the state polls that have followed.

The Jharkhand results come after the 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 the second time, but the party lost control of country's richest state Maharashtra - home to the financial capital Mumbai - after a falling-out with its regional partner, the Shiv Sena.

In March 2018 the BJP and its allies together controlled 20 states. With the loss of Jharkhand, that number has come down to 16, hindering Mr 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 neighbouring 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 neighbouring 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 and implemented mobile Internet curbs across many parts of the country to try and end the demonstrations but to little effect.

The protests represent the single biggest challenge Mr 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.

"The cost of the citizenship law to the BJP is increasing," said Narendar Pani, a political economist and professor at the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, noting the BJP's "poor handling of the economy" was also a factor.  BLOOMBERG, REUTERS