NEW DELHI - An upstart anti-establishment party crushed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in an election for the Delhi assembly on Tuesday, smashing an aura of invincibility built around Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he swept to power last year.
With the vote of the main national opposition Congress party collapsing, the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man Party, was set to capture nine-tenths of the seats in Delhi, in what Modi's critics said was a warning against the partisan politics of Hindu hardliners in his fold.
Winning power in the states is critical to control of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, where Modi's party lacks a majority and has been thwarted in its effort to pass reforms, including wider opening of the insurance sector.
Delhi is a small state, but high profile, and such a comprehensive defeat in the capital is a blow to the BJP's ambitions to capture India's second most populous state, Bihar, in an election later this year.
The Aam Admi, led by former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal and campaigning on a platform of pro-poor polices and clean government, was set to win 65 seats out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly, NDTV projected, the biggest ever tally for any party in the capital.
Congress, the BJP's main nationwide challenger, failed to win a single seat, underlining how far the Gandhi dynasty has fallen.
The BJP, seen as a party of traders and big business, had slumped to 4 seats, its worst showing ever, with its chief minister candidate and former cop Kiran Bedi struggling to win her own seat.
Modi, who threw himself into the campaign, congratulated Kejriwal and said in a Twitter post he was ready to work with him for the development of the mega-city of more than 15 million people.
"While Delhi is not very significant in electoral terms, a BJP loss there shatters the popular narrative around the BJP's invincibility," said Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"A loss in Delhi certainly signals an end to Modi's honeymoon. Furthermore, because it is the capital city, an opposition government, especially one led by the confrontational AAP, would be a constant thorn in the Modi government's side."
Hundreds of supporters of the AAP swarmed into its office, wearing their trademark boat-shaped white caps, and showered their leaders with flower petals.
The BSE Sensex shrugged off the BJP's defeat, rising more than 1 per cent, as traders turned their sights to a reform-friendly budget that the Modi government is expected to unveil in parliament later this month.