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India PM concedes defeat in Bihar elections, one of country's largest states

Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists are on course to win just 58 seats in the Bihar state assembly. The PM's party is trailing a coalition of regional parties who are leading in the count for 158 of the 243 seats.

A year after he was swept to power in national polls,

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conceded defeat on Sunday in a regional election in Bihar, one of the country's largest and poorest states.

As vote counting continued on Sunday, a coalition of regional parties were leading in polls for 158 of the 243 seats in the state assembly. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was likely to pick up just 58 seats.

The vote, which ended on Thursday after being run in five phases over the past month,

was seen as a key test for Modi's popularity and success in reviving a struggling economy following the 2008/9 financial crisis.

Described as the most expensive state election ever fought by the party, the prime minister campaigned hard, addressing some 30 campaign rallies throughout Bihar, promising voters billions of dollars for development.

Bihar has some of India's highest malnutrition and illiteracy levels and two thirds of the population lack access to electricity.

Nitish Kumar

A coalition led by the chief minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar is likely to win the regional election

But BJP spokesman GVL Narsimha Rao denied the loss was a personal blow for Modi, saying the odds were stacked against their party after regional rivals joined forces.

"This election was loaded against us. It is a defeat of the arithmetic," he told India Today TV.

Tough campaign

The Bihar contest pitted Modi against an alliance of two powerful local leaders, Nitish Kumar and his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The battle turned bitter and violent in recent weeks, along religious and caste lines. In the lead-up to the polls, several Muslims were killed in separate incidents by Hindu mobs who suspected them of stealing or eating cows which Hindus consider sacred.

Bihar is the second major defeat for Modi's party. In February,

the party was trounced in Delhi state elections.

Analysts say the loss will set back plans to push major economic reforms through the national parliament where the BJP lacks a majority. It may even inspire rivals in Modi's own party amid concern he may not win a second term as prime minister.

"This is a clear indication that Modi's popularity may now have peaked," Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation told Reuters.

mm/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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