India’s ruling National Congress party was set for an election boost yesterday in local polls that ended decades of communist rule in a key state and lifted the fortunes of under-fire Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
In the largest of the five states involved, West Bengal, Congress’ local ally won a landslide to sweep aside the world’s longest-serving democratically elected Communist government, which has been in power for 34 years.
The Trinamool Congress, led by populist Mamata Banerjee, and Congress looked set to win more than two-thirds of the 294 seats, condemning the ruling Left Front to the wilderness in a major political upheaval for the state.
Early results elsewhere gave Congress a certain victory in northeastern Assam and the edge in two of the other three states — southeastern Kerala and the tiny union territory of Pondicherry. However, in southwestern Tamil Nadu, another key Congress ally was poised for a resounding defeat as a telecoms corruption scandal that has dogged the national government torpedoed the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
The state polls were seen as a mini-referendum on the popularity of 78-year-old Singh and his government, which has been paralyzed by corruption scandals and under fire over high inflation for much of the past year.
“Congress’ performance is very good. They are overall in a -comfortable position,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst at the Centre for the Developing Societies think tank in New Delhi.
He said there had been “anxiety” in the party ahead of the results, adding that a good performance would “bring back the much-needed confidence at the federal level. People’s support will give them an image makeover.”
The victory for Banerjee’s Trinamool in West Bengal, home to the once-grand, but now crumbling city of Kolkata, marks the end of an era in modern Indian politics.
The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had until recently won every election in the eastern state since 1977, but they stand accused of huge economic mismanagement and political violence.
Cheering crowds gathered outside Banerjee’s modest one-story home in Kolkata, where she spoke to a jubilant crowd that burst fire-crackers and threw powder-paint in a riot of color and celebration.
Banerjee, a 56-year-old national railways minister known affectionately as didi, or “elder sister,” said her success was “a victory of the people against years of oppression.”
“There will be an end to autocracy and atrocities,” she said, adding that she was “thankful and humbled” by the scale of the victory.
Local Communist leader Nilotpal Basu told NDTV television that “accumulated problems” had led to the party’s electoral collapse.
“We have to go back to basics,” he added.
The anti-incumbency mood in West Bengal is said by analysts to have been fueled by farmers angry at being forced to sell their fertile land holdings under a government job-creation drive to lure industry.
In the tropical southern state of Kerala, another bastion of Communist rule, early returns also showed Congress with a slight lead over the leftists there. On an overall positive day for Singh, the dark spot was Tamil Nadu, where the DMK, a member of the national coalition government, was all but wiped out by another regional party led by former movie star J. Jayalalithaa.
It has been embroiled in one of India’s biggest ever corruption scandals, in which former Indian minister for communication and information technology A. Raja, a DMK member, is accused of selling off telecoms licences at cut-price values.
He is in jail in New Delhi awaiting trial, while the daughter of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has also been named in other charges.
“We expected to do much, much better in Tamil Nadu,” Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said. “I totally agree that corruption is an issue.”
With no party holding an overall majority in India’s federal parliament, state elections play a crucial role in shifting the national power balance, with Congress obliged to forge alliances with regional parties to govern.