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India's Ruling Party Faces Defeat in State Elections - 2003-03-01


In India, elections for four state assemblies are seen as a key test of strength for the country's ruling and opposition parties. The governing Bharatiya Janata party has lost ground in some recent state elections, while the opposition Congress party has made gains.

The Bharatiya Janata party has been ousted from power in Himachal Pradesh, a small state in the Himalayan foothills. Its main opponent, the Congress party got an absolute majority, winning 40 seats in the 68-member state assembly.

The BJP's defeat in Himachal Pradesh is a setback to the party. The Hindu nationalists lost a string of state elections since taking control of the federal government in 1998, but an impressive win in Gujarat state last December had raised hopes among BJP cadres that its electoral fortunes were reviving.

Political analysts say the results in Himachal Pradesh indicate that BJP's popularity continues to decline.

Meanwhile, in the remote northeast, left parties retain control of Tripura state. The Congress party has emerged as the single largest group in Meghalaya, but has failed to win a clear majority. In Nagaland, the Congress party is locked in a close contest with a regional party (Nagaland People's Group). The BJP was not in the race in these states, because it does not have a significant presence there.

Congress party president Sonia Gandhi says she is encouraged by the party's victory in Himachal Pradesh. "It is most encouraging and we are all very happy," she said.

The party has won in several state elections in recent years, and now rules 13 of the country's 28 states.

Political analyst Inder Malhotra says the BJP will control only three states following its defeat in Himachal Pradesh. Mr. Malhotra calls this a serious setback. "It's a jolt that was not expected, and it is a very bad jolt," said Inder Malhotra.

Senior BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, will meet in New Delhi Sunday to discuss the party's strategy in the face of the latest setback.

The elections this week were seen as an important pointer to how the country's two main parties will fare in another round of state elections later in the year, and national elections next year.