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March 05, 2012

India’s Ruling Congress Party Suffers Election Blow

by Anjana Pasricha

India’s ruling Congress Party has suffered a political blow, faring poorly in a round of regional elections. The party won only one out of five states. The elections also dealt a severe blow to Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi, the latest member of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty expected to take the center stage of Indian politics.

In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the Congress Party had hoped to make substantial gains following months of intensive campaigning by key leader Rahul Gandhi.
But the Congress Party trailed behind regional parties to emerge in distant fourth place in what is seen as the country’s most crucial state politically.  The Congress has not been in power in Uttar Pradesh for more than 20 years.

The clear winner in the state, the socialist Samajwadi Party, was set to oust the ruling low-caste party, the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Gandhi admitted the results “were not good,"  but says his work to strengthen the party will continue.

“I view my work as trying to improve the political system of this country and that will continue," he said. "I will continue to do that. Certainly, I expect to have victories along the way and I expect to have defeats and this is one of the defeats.”

Disappointment was also in store for the Congress Party in other states. It retained power in northeastern Manipur state, but is set to lose the tiny western state, Goa, to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. And, despite improving its performance, Congress failed to score a victory in the northern Punjab state. It is caught in a close fight with the opposition BJP in Uttarakhand.

The elections were seen as a litmus test for the Congress Party halfway through its second term as head of the federal coalition. In the last two years it has been tainted by a series of corruption scandals and has been battling high inflation, allowing the government to come under fire from even its political allies. Congress Party leaders had hoped that a strong showing in these polls would give their party a much-needed shot in the arm.

Independent political analyst Prem Shankar Jha in New Delhi says the Congress Party depended too heavily on the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to rescue its political fortunes.

“What has this election done?  It has smashed the idea of charisma," said Prem Shankar Jha. "The Congress went to UP purely on the charisma of the Gandhi family and got precisely nowhere.”

After his campaign failed to translate into votes, questions will be raised whether Rahul Gandhi, widely tipped as a future prime minister, has what it takes to emerge as a national leader.

However, Prem Shankar Jha says that, despite the disappointment the Congress Party has suffered, the election results provide an opportunity for the party to rework its strategy and revive its flagging fortunes ahead of national elections scheduled for 2014.