India’s ruling Congress loses in state polls

Political heir to Nehru-Gandhi dynasty suffers a blow with party’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh and three other states.

Rahul Gandhi

India’s ruling Congress party has suffered a major election setback in crucial state polls, winning clearly in just one of five states contested.

Congress, which runs the federal government in New Delhi, suffered a landslide defeat in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically significant state.

With all but a few results confirmed, Congress had won just 28 out of 403 seats.

Tuesday’s results were the first appraisal of Rahul Gandhi, a presumed prime-minister-in-waiting who led the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

“I stood in front, so it is my responsibility,” Gandhi, 41, said as he conceded defeat.

“All of us in the Congress party fought. We fought well but the result which came was not so good.”

The polls are being seen as a midterm popularity test for the government of Manmohan Singh in the run-up the 2014 general elections.

Major defeat

The results saw Congress increase its representation in those states where polls were held from a woeful performance in the 2007 polls, but are nevertheless being seen as a major defeat, given Gandhi’s tireless campaigning.

Congress also lost badly in the holiday state of Goa, where it had been in power, and failed to regain any ground in the agricultural heartland of Punjab, where the Shiromani Akali Dal, a regional party, regained its mandate.

In the mountainous northern state of Uttarakhand, Congress held on to a wafer-thin victory over national opponents, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but was four short of a majority.

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Impoverished Manipur in the far northeast of India was the sole bright spot, where the party returned to power with a huge majority. 

A series of scandals and a popular anti-corruption campaign led by activist Anna Hazare last summer have badly tarnished Singh’s image and hurt the party in the state elections.

It is unclear whether the results will have an impact on the government’s stalled pro-market reform agenda, which has drawn opposition from coalition partners and within the party itself.

Following a record turnout of 59.5 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, the incumbent chief minister and prominent low-caste leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, suffered a resounding defeat.

The Samajwadi Party (SP), a regional socialist party that draws support from many low-caste farmers and Muslims, won a clear victory and majority in the new state assembly.

Mayawati, who uses one name, drew criticism during her five-year rule for spending vast amounts of public funds on parks, complete with gigantic statues of herself and other party leaders, instead of reforming the state’s health and education systems.

Akhilesh Yadav, the son of SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, promised a crackdown on corruption and economic development, while claiming voters had “risen above caste and religion”.

Strongholds lost

Congress suffered defeats in the historic Gandhi family strongholds of Rae Bareli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, from where Sonia and Rahul are elected to the national parliament.

“Certainly I expect to have victories along the way and I expect to have defeats,” Rahul said, explaining that revitalising Congress in Uttar Pradesh was a long-term project.

“This is one of the defeats, so I take it in my stride.”

The tragedy-plagued Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated politics in India since independence in 1947, providing three prime ministers, two of whom were assassinated.

Rahul’s Italian-born mother Sonia is the current Congress president.

Source: News Agencies