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India's Ruling Congress Party Wins Key State Election  - 2004-10-16

India's ruling Congress Party has retained power in legislative elections in the country's second largest state of Maharashtra. The vote was seen by some as the first key test of the Congress Party, which came to power earlier this year in a surprise victory.

The head of the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign conceded defeat Saturday, and admitted the party may not have worked hard enough to win.

Pramod Mahajan says the results of the election were not up to the party leaders' expectations and it is possible that senior party leaders did not do enough to assure a win. But he added that the BJP, as the party is known, would continue to play a strong role in the opposition.

The BJP won 118 seats in the Maharashtra state assembly compared with 139 won by the Congress Party. That is below the 145 seats needed to take control of the 288-seat assembly, but the Congress Party is expected to form a coalition with smaller parties to gain the majority.

Maharashtra is India's second largest state. It's main city, Bombay, is India's financial and entertainment powerhouse. But the state also is home to millions of India's rural poor, and has gained a reputation for extremes of wealth and poverty.

Some in India have described the poll as a test of the popularity of the Congress Party, which handed a surprise defeat to the BJP in national parliamentary elections five months ago. The victory brought Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to power, and the party's leader, Sonia Gandhi, to greater prominence.

Bharat Karnad from the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi says it is most likely voters cast their ballots based on local issues.

"I doubt very much in that sense that the local electorate is going to be swayed by other than local issues - the drought and so on, the farmers' woes in the countryside," said Mr. Karnad. "Then in the city there are the infrastructure problems, the problems with water, electricity and so on."

Analysts say the BJP campaigned on nationalist and Hindu issues in Maharastra, with its close ally, the right-wing Hindu group, the Siv Sena. But the strategy failed to attract poor voters.