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India state election results are a blow to ruling Congress party

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NEW DELHI — India’s ruling Congress party suffered a major setback Tuesday, incurring key losses in elections in five states across the country.

The party’s poor performance is likely to weaken its hand as it tries to push through reforms to revive the country’s economy in the final two years of its term, analysts said.

The state elections have been viewed here as a bellwether for national legislative elections scheduled for 2014. According to the near-final count late Tuesday, Congress had performed poorly in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, lost control of the western state of Goa and won in two Himalayan states.

As head of a fractious coalition government, Congress is already struggling to counter perceptions of corruption and policy paralysis. According to analysts, Tuesday’s results are likely to further embolden coalition partners who in the past three months have blocked efforts to open up the retail and pension industries and establish a strong national counterterrorism center.

“Today’s results increase the political constraints on the Indian government, and this does not augur well for economic reforms in the near term,” said Sajjid Chinoy, India economist at J.P. Morgan in Mumbai.“The government’s leverage with smaller, regional parties has reduced, and it will now be governing from a position of weakness.”

The biggest disappointment for the Congress party was its showing in the politically significant northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, where the man widely seen as the party’s future leader, Rahul Gandhi, had campaigned extensively.

The 41-year-old is the latest member of India’s famed Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to enter politics, and many expect him to follow in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandmother and father and become prime minister.He spent months crisscrossing the state by helicopter to address rally after rally but failed to make much headway.

“The natural charisma of the family is on the wane. It is a big defeat for Rahul Gandhi,” said Manisha Priyam, associate professor of politics at Delhi University and a research scholar at the London School of Economics. “One in three voters in this election were under the age of 39, and they were not interested in the bygone era of the Gandhi family charisma.”

Trends show the socialist Samajwadi Party with a win in Uttar Pradesh and Congress coming a distant fourth, barely improving on its showing in the previous elections, in 2007. Gandhi accepted the blame for the defeat, while adding that the party’s grass-roots organization was weak in the state.

“I fought the campaign. I was standing in the front. The responsibility is mine,” he said in New Delhi.

Analysts were divided on whether the public anger unleashed by a nationwide anti-corruption movement last year also influenced voters. In Uttar Pradesh, voters threw out the corruption-tainted government of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents lower-caste communities, but replaced it with a party whose image is no cleaner.

Nevertheless, leaders of the anti-corruption movement claimed credit for the Congress party’s poor showing. “I am not saying that politics will now become clean, but corruption was an election issue,” Priyam said.“Brazen corruption is on its way out. Politicians are now scared of election outcomes in an age when corruption scandals can no longer remain hidden.”

A coalition of Sikh party Shiromani Akali Dal and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained power in Punjab. The BJP won in Goa, while Congress won in the northern state of Uttarakhand and comfortably retained control of the insurgency-racked northeastern state of Manipur.

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