India’s ruling Congress party suffers blow in state elections

STR/EPA - Indian supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) celebrate outside AAP's party office after their party leader Arvind Kejriwal won in the state assembly election aganist chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, in New Delhi, Dec. 8, 2013.

NEW DELHI — India’s governing Congress party suffered a bruising blow Sunday, losing four keenly watched state elections in what is seen as a semifinal for the national vote in the spring.

The country’s main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came out ahead in all four states, even as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), formed last year by anti-corruption crusaders, made an impressive debut here in the capital.

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Celebrations broke out at BJP offices nationwide, with party workers exchanging marigold garlands, eating sweets, setting off firecrackers and dancing to drums. At the AAP office in New Delhi, supporters in signature white caps shouted slogans and wielded brooms — their election symbol for cleaning house.

The elections were held in phases over the past few weeks. Some experts called Sunday’s “counting day” results a clear repudiation of the Congress party, which has dominated politics in India since the days of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, but lately has been stung by charges of ineptitude and corruption.

“There is no doubt that there is a massive mood against the Congress party among voters today,” said Nirmala Sitharaman, a spokeswoman for the BJP. “It brought a lot of disheartened, angry voters to the polling booth. The impact of these results will now certainly have a bearing on the national elections.”

In the nation’s sprawling capital of 16 million people, the Aam Aadmi Party — or the Common Man’s Party, intended as an antidote to India’s corrupt and entrenched political system — won more than two dozen assembly seats. The party’s leader, Arvind Kejriwal, a former social activist, defeated Sheila Dikshit, the powerful three-term chief minister.

“Our democracy has been subservient to political parties governed by caste, religion, money power, muscle power and corruption for too long,” Kejriwal told a throng of cheering supporters. “People were exhausted with this kind of politics and decided to contest elections themselves.”

The BJP emerged as the single largest party in Delhi, with 31 seats, but was three seats short of a majority required to form the government. The AAP won 28 seats, and the Congress party, which had governed Delhi for 15 years, took just eight.

According to the election commission results, the Congress party also lost power in Rajasthan, performed poorly in Madhya Pradesh and fell short of defeating the ruling BJP in Chhattisgarh. A fifth jurisdiction, the northeastern state of Mizoram, will learn its results Monday.

For the Congress party, which has been besieged by widespread public disaffection because of rising prices, a sagging economy and a string of corruption scandals, the results were seen as a wake-up call.

A grim-faced Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born president of the party, appeared before television cameras late in the afternoon, with her son and heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, at her side.

The election losses call for “deep introspection,” she said. “Obviously, people aren’t happy” with the Congress party, she added.

In a nod to the AAP’s unexpectedly strong debut, Rahul Gandhi said India’s mainstream political parties had not done enough for the “man on the street.”

“I think the AAP party has involved a lot of people that the traditional parties did not involve,” the 43-year-old party vice president said. “We are going to learn from that.”

The Congress party’s recent efforts to showcase a slew of welfare measures for the poor may not have been enough to offset public anger over rising food prices and other problems, some observers said.

“One by one, vegetables were disappearing from our plates and becoming unaffordable in the past two years, and the government did nothing to protect us,” said Inayat Khan, 34, a muezzin who was casting his vote in New Delhi last week.

Dipankar Gupta, a political commentator and author, said the Congress party was hurt by “the sense of drift, indecisiveness, inability to make anything work that has plagued it in recent years.”

“Industrial production is down, jobs are not growing, basic services are poor,” Gupta said. “Old fault lines around caste, language, region, religion and rural-urban distinctions are wearing out. The inability of the government to deliver efficient services affects everybody.”

The gains that the BJP made are likely to boost the image of Narendra Modi, the controversial leader who is the party’s candidate for prime minister.

Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, projects himself as a decisive, pro-business figure who would provide the kind of leadership that is needed to jump-start India’s slowing economy. But his failure to stem widespread Hindu-Muslim riots in his home state in 2002 continues to hurt his credibility as a national figure who can build effective coalitions in this diverse country of more than 1 billion.

 
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