India's ruling BJP trails Congress in Karnataka state election - exit polls

People wait in a queue to cast their vote at a polling station in Bengaluru

By YP Rajesh

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trailing the main opposition Congress party in elections held on Wednesday in the southern state of Karnataka, but neither seemed set for a clear win, TV exit polls showed.

The election in Karnataka, where BJP led the outgoing government, is the first of five state elections this year which are seen as setting the tone for parliamentary elections due in April-May 2024.

It is also the first big electoral face-off between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP and Congress since Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was convicted for defamation in March and as a result lost his parliament seat.

Of the 12 exit polls, two gave Congress a majority and one said BJP would win a majority in Karnataka.

The remaining polls showed an inconclusive verdict, with Congress leading six and BJP three in neck-and-neck races.

An average of the 12 exit polls showed Congress at 107 seats and BJP at 92 in the 224-member state legislature which needs 113 seats for a majority.

Votes cast in Karnataka on Wednesday are due to be counted on May 13 and results expected the same day. Opinion and exit polls in India have a mixed record of getting it right.

A defeat in Karnataka would be a rare dampener for the BJP, which has been on a roll in state elections since Modi led the party to a second term in power federally in 2019.

Modi remains widely popular even after nine years in power and is widely expected to win a third term in 2024.

A victory for Congress would come as a shot in the arm for the party which has seen its national footprint shrink to its lowest in the last decade.

Karnataka, whose capital city Bengaluru is a global tech hub, is home to about 65 million people and is considered the BJP’s gateway to southern India as the party has struggled to win elections elsewhere in the region.

The Congress campaign in Karnataka focused on the performance of the state’s BJP government and allegations of corruption against it. The BJP campaign stressed what it said are the advantages of having the same party govern the country and the state, and Hindu nationalism.

(Reporting by YP Rajesh, Editing by William Maclean)