Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Congress loses big in Indian polls

MAJOR VICTORY The ruling BJP defeated Sonia Gandhi's Congress party in three key state elections, paving the way to next year's general elections

AP , NEW DELHI

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate after their party's victory in the state assembly election in Bhopal on Thursday. The ruling Hindu nationalist BJP won unassailable majorities in three of four states that went to polls earlier this week.

PHOTO: AFP

In a huge upset, India's ruling Hindu nationalist party wrested control of three of four state legislatures in elections seen as a bellwether for the country's parliamentary ballot next year.

The outcome was a blow to the main opposition Congress party, headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, which was the incumbent in all four states.

The results, announced by the Election Commission on Thursday, were a major victory for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies had previously won just four significant state elections since he was elected in 1998.

Some 52 million people cast ballots on Monday in the last major test of party strength before next year's parliamentary elections.

Defying pre-election polls, the BJP won in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states. Congress, the favorite in all of the states except Madhya Pradesh, won only in New Delhi.

"It's a much greater-than-expected sweep for the BJP. It's a shock to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party is going to be in deep trouble if it doesn't get its act together," political commentator Inder Malhotra said.

However, Malhotra didn't see any threat to Gandhi's position because of a lack of strong challengers among colleagues in a Congress party that is "too effete."

Sonia Gandhi belongs to India's Nehru political family, its most famous. Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi all served as prime minister. Sonia married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 and made India her home.

"I don't think it's a vote against Sonia Gandhi," said Mushirul Hasan, an analyst and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Clearly, the voters were not happy with the governance of the party in the three states."

People have been complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Madhya Pradesh and the bad handling of the drought in Rajasthan, he said.

Support for the BJP may also have been boosted by recent peace initiatives with Pakistan, including a ceasefire in disputed Kashmir and the resumption of air links. The economy also likely played a role.

BJP president Venkaiah Naidu said the state victories were "an endorsement of [the national government's] policies by the people," according to the Press Trust of India.

"I think principally the focus being development and not Hinduism obviously evoked a response from the voters," Hasan said.

Some analysts predicted that a good showing for the BJP would prompt the party to call early national elections, now scheduled for September and October. But the BJP said it would finish out its term.

"We are not thinking of early polls," Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani told PTI.

The latest count of districts showed the BJP had won 171 seats out of a total of 230 seats in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. Con-gress won only 37. The rest of the seats went to smaller parties and independent candidates.

In Chhattisgarh, the BJP and Congress pulled 50 and 36 seats, respectively. Congress lost badly in Rajasthan, getting only 55 seats to the BJP's 122 out of the 200 legislature seats. Congress held on to New Delhi state for a second term, winning 47 of the 70 seats.

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