India’s state voters turn their back on Congress party

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Voters have handed a crushing defeat to India’s governing Congress party and its leaders, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, as the votes were counted for state elections on Sunday.
But victories in at least three states for the Bharatiya Janata party, the Hindu nationalist opposition, do not necessarily translate into a personal triumph for Narendra Modi, BJP leader and Mr Gandhi’s main rival.
“It’s clearly a kick in the backside for the Congress,” said Ramachandra Guha, a historian, of the results showing humiliating defeats for the party in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. “It’s a body blow to Congress and by implication to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, particularly to Rahul.”

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Mr Gandhi, great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress leader who took India to independence from Britain in 1947, is considered the de facto prime ministerial candidate for his party in the general election to be held by May next year.

Yet he is hampered by his apparent lack of enthusiasm for politics and by public discontent with Congress’s performance in power over the past decade. His mother chose economist Manmohan Singh as prime minister for the past two terms but annual growth has halved to less than 5 per cent and investors have criticised slow decision-making, continued corruption and high inflation.

Mr Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, had campaigned vigorously for his party at mass pre-election rallies before the voting in five of India’s 28 states.
But it was in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – the two states where the BJP was already strong and would almost certainly have won without his intervention – that the party performed best. In the Chhattisgarh election, Congress gained seats from the incumbent BJP and the two parties were neck-and-neck in the counting last night.

Gilles Verniers, a Delhi-based expert on Indian politics from the think-tank SciencesPo in Paris, said the polls in these three “bipolar” states, dominated by the BJP and Congress, revealed little about the regional parties that can be an important factor in general elections.

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“This is not an indicator of how the BJP does in places where it’s weak or absent,” he said. “The regional parties have not been tested. And they tend to be strong in the states that send the most MPs to the Lok Sabha [the lower house of parliament].”

Apart from the overall collapse of support for Congress, the most remarkable feature of the four state elections for which votes were counted on Sunday was the rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (Ordinary People) party in Delhi.

Founded only a year ago, the AAP, which has promised to sweep away corruption, came a close second to the BJP in the capital, depriving the BJP of a majority and leaving Congress with only a handful of seats. AAP members wearing their trademark white caps with the slogan “I’m an ordinary person” celebrated in the streets by waving brooms, the party symbol.

Mr Kejriwal himself ousted Sheila Dikshit, the state’s Congress chief minister for the past 15 years, from her seat in New Delhi and won more than twice as many votes as she.
The AAP’s strong performance, according to Mr Guha, would give hope to smaller and regional parties hoping for a “third front” national government led neither by Congress nor the BJP, which between them have dominated politics almost without a break since independence. “Discontent with the Congress does not mean automatic triumph of the BJP, especially with a third alternative available,” he said.
As for Congress, Mr Guha said, it appeared that even the poor were disenchanted with the party despite its “welfarist, populist” policies. “If the Congress does very badly in the general election, then I think there are serious question marks about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.”

Both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi last night accepted defeat in the state polls, although there might be a small consolation prize when votes in the small north-eastern state of Mizoram are counted on Monday.
“We have the ability to transform ourselves and the Congress party is going to do that,” said a rueful Mr Gandhi. He has only six months left before the whole country votes in the general election.

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