NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing party appeared to fail in its promised goal of taking over Delhi State’s legislature on Tuesday, in a bitter regional election campaign that the party tried to turn into a referendum on Hindu nationalism and the protest movement that has challenged Mr. Modi.
Cabinet ministers for Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned with starkly sectarian language, implying that support for the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party was like supporting Islamist “terrorism” or committing treason. In the two weeks since one deputy minister implored crowds to “shoot the traitors,” there have been two cases of guns being fired at protesters.
On Tuesday, preliminary results showed that the B.J.P. was likely to pick up more seats in the Legislative Assembly than it won in the last state election here, in 2015. That would be still short of what it needed to beat the A.A.P. and take over the critical office of chief minister for Delhi State, a priority after Mr. Modi won national elections last year.
The election came after three months of nationwide protests that were prompted by a B.J.P.-supported citizenship law that opponents say discriminates against Muslims. The protests have posed the biggest challenge yet to Mr. Modi, and have turned into an expression of resistance against what many demonstrators see as a long-term plan by the B.J.P. to redefine India’s secular foundation and turn it into a Hindu-centric state.
The Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, has a wide base of support, cutting across India’s religious and class divides, including many voters who support the B.J.P. in national elections. The party has emphasized economic development issues, like health care and education.
The B.J.P.’s main strategy, meanwhile, was to relentlessly focus its campaign on issues of sectarian identity, doubling down on the citizenship law and other Hindu-centric initiatives rather than on issues specific to the capital city.
Top officials from the B.J.P. told Delhi’s voters that a vote for the opposing A.A.P. was tantamount to a vote for Pakistan, the Islamic republic and archrival next door.
India’s information minister, Prakash Javadekar, went even further last week, calling the incumbent chief minister from the A.A.P. a “terrorist” during a news conference.
“You are a terrorist and there is plenty of proof,” Mr. Javadekar said, without providing any.
In the weeks before the election, the B.J.P. widely branded protesters as being backed by Pakistan, and also accused the incumbent, Arvind Kejriwal, of being a Pakistani agent who was secretly supporting the protests, working to help Muslims while holding India’s Hindu population back. (Mr. Kejriwal is Hindu.)
Mr. Kejriwal avoided talking about the protests, instead focusing on his party’s achievements. If confirmed, the election results on Tuesday would return him to the chief minister’s office and give him a third consecutive election victory.
Still, there is evidence that the B.J.P.’s strategy did work, even if it did not deliver complete victory.
More voters turned out for the B.J.P. this election, increasing the party’s vote share to about 40 percent, up 10 percentage points from 2015 polls.
“Their negative, violent and divisive strategy just got a shot in the arm,” said Rupa Subramanya, a prominent economist who once supported Mr. Modi, but has soured as his leadership turned divisive.
“Their strategy resonates enough to give their opponent a run for their money. Expect more of this moving ahead,” Ms. Subramanya added.
While the B.J.P.’s emphasis on Hindu-nationalist themes have yielded two national election victories in a row, including winning states last year that had eluded them before, there is growing concern that it could lead to sectarian violence and economic instability.
India is struggling economically right now, with unemployment at a 45-year high. Some economists worry that the B.J.P.’s chest-thumping nationalism will not end with the Delhi election, increasing the risk of communal violence in India and adding to the uncertainty investors despise.
Just days before releasing a much-anticipated budget, India’s deputy finance minister, Anurag Thakur, was busy exhorting an election rally to “shoot the traitors,” referring to protesters.
Some heeded the call. Last week, two men on a scooter shot at protesters at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, a center of the demonstrations. It was the second case in which gunmen fired at protesters since Mr. Thakur raised the violent chant two weeks ago.
Mr. Kejriwal has lashed out at the B.J.P., and said the party’s officials were resorting to sectarianism because they had no achievements of their own to point to.
“This is why they want to contest the polls on the plank of Hindu-Muslim and distract people from our accomplishments,” Mr. Kejriwal said in an interview last week with The Indian Express newspaper.
“The time has come to choose what patriotism is. Is educating children patriotism or is it stressing on the Hindu-Muslim debate? Is providing affordable health care patriotism or is it Hindu-Muslim?”
But even for some A.A.P. supporters, the B.J.P.’s campaign struck a chord.
Dinesh Chauhan, a 27-year old taxi driver, was waiting in a long line at a voting booth near his home in Tughlaqabad, in Delhi. While he liked Mr. Kejriwal and said he had done a good job of improving schools and electricity, he was planning to vote for the B.J.P.
Mr. Kejriwal “supports Muslims and the Shaheen Bagh protesters. That is why I am voting against him,” Mr. Chauhan said.
The Shaheen Bagh protests, held in a Delhi neighborhood and blocking a major highway leading into the capital, have become an emblem for the antigovernment protests the B.J.P. has railed against.
But for some voters, like Naseema Parveen, 62, development was still the critical issue.
“We need leaders who can deliver jobs and development,” Ms. Parveen said, “not hate and dividing people on the basis of religion.”