Ruling Party in India Victorious in Three State Elections

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NEW DELHI, Dec. 8 -- India's ruling Congress party has won control of three states in local elections, officials said Monday, a surprising victory as public attitudes toward the government sour in the wake of last month's attacks in Mumbai.

Political observers had said that frequent terrorist strikes in recent months and rising food prices would probably work against the incumbent and give an edge to the Hindu nationalist opposition.

The state elections are a prelude to national elections, scheduled around May.

Vote totals for five states were announced Monday, and the results in a sixth state, Kashmir, are expected later this month when the staggered polling ends. Congress won in Delhi, the western state of Rajasthan and the northeastern state of Mizoram. It had not held power in the latter two states, which represented pick-ups for the party. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained its hold in the central states of Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

After the election, analysts said that voters had focused on local development issues such as roads, water and power instead of terrorism.

A string of bombings have ripped through several Indian cities since May, killing more than 250 people. Late last month, 10 gunmen killed 171 people and wounded more than 230 others in a well-coordinated assault on Mumbai.

The campaign in recent weeks was dominated by a highly polarized political debate, as each party appealed to a Hindu or Muslim voter base. The BJP had campaigned aggressively on the issue of terrorism, blaming the Congress Party for not enacting a strict anti-terrorism law. The BJP also criticized the arrest of several Hindus who were recently implicated in a bombing in a Muslim neighborhood.

Congress, meanwhile, had faced criticism and eroding support from its traditional Muslim base for arresting scores of Muslim suspects for various bombings.

"The issue in this election was development and Delhi's future. Terrorism was not the issue. People understand very well who is politicizing the issue of terrorism and have rejected it outright," said a jubilant Sheila Dikshit, who won the chief ministership of the state of Delhi. "We must stand together when any kind of attack or weakening of the country takes place. Unfortunately, the opposition mounted a very negative campaign about terrorism."

The BJP retained power in two states where it raised the issue of terrorism.

"Terrorism was and is a real issue which concerns the polity," said Arun Jaitley, the general secretary of the BJP.

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