India’s Congress Party does poorly in key state elections

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REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- India’s version of Super Tuesday was anything but super for the ruling Congress Party, which fared more poorly than it had hoped in a closely watched state assembly contest in northern Uttar Pradesh that is perceived as a barometer of its standing on the national stage.


With most of the votes counted, Congress was also facing losses in assembly races in northern Punjab and western Goa states and a contest too close to call in northern Uttarakhand state. The party’s only good news was in the isolated northwestern state of Manipur, where it was returned to power.

Anti-incumbency sentiments played a significant role in most states, analysts said, as record numbers of voters turned out to show their displeasure at widespread corruption, infrastructure bottlenecks and poor government services.

In the crucial Uttar Pradesh election, Congress was on target to do marginally better than the 22 seats in a 403-seat state assembly that it had held since 2007. [Updated, 10:59 a.m. March 6: Later reports indicated the party had won 28 seats.] Still, the tepid showing was a major blow to Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, who campaigned energetically, attending more than 200 rallies, in hopes of an outright majority.

Even before the results started coming in, party functionaries were scrambling to insulate Gandhi, scion of a political dynasty that dates back to India’s first leader, Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi 41, has frequently been mentioned as a future prime minister. ‘Rahul Gandhi was brilliant,” said Congress’ party chief in Uttar Pradesh. “The candidates failed.”

But Gandhi, often seen as hard-working but short on passion or political instinct, didn’t try to sugarcoat the outcome. “I take responsibility, I led the campaign,” he told reporters Tuesday, citing poor organization. ‘It would be a very good lesson for me.’

The poor showing suggests Congress will continue to struggle in the face of graft scandals, diminished economic growth, inflation and limited policy initiatives ahead of nationwide elections due by 2014.

“This only proves Rahul Gandhi is not strong enough to rule Congress,” said Vaidyanathan Krishna, a columnist and political analyst, adding that this will spell more policy muddle on the national stage. “And Congress losing Punjab is a big development.”

The outcome in Uttar Pradesh forces from power the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party, which is headed by Mayawati, who uses one name. The colorful, controversial politician, member of the lower-caste dalit community, labeled herself the “Dalit Queen,” built scores of massive elephant statues around the state, wore necklaces of woven currency worth thousands of dollars at campaign events and ordered sculptors to re-chisel stone likenesses of herself to make them taller.

Uttar Pradesh, with about 200 million people, would be the world’s fifth-most populous country if it were independent. The big winner in the state contest was the socialist Samajwadi Party, which rode the anti-incumbency wave, gaining crucial support among Muslims and other minorities to put it on target to secure some 220 seats. During its past tenure ruling the state, the party presided over a surge in gang violence and bragged of a ‘bandit queen’ among its lawmakers.

“The SP’s strong showing far exceeded anyone’s expectation,” said Mohammad Aslam, political science professor at Allahabad University in Uttar Pradesh. “Congress must be feeling a bit foolish.”

In Punjab, the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal Party bucked the trend with a return to power.

Congress’ setbacks could make it harder for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition government to enact economic reforms needed to spur the country’s economic growth, analysts said, which recently slipped below 7%.


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