India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party wrested control of three of four state legislatures in elections seen as a strong indicator for the country’s parliamentary ballot next year.
The outcome was a blow to the main opposition Congress party, headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, which was the incumbent in all four states.
The results, announced by the Election Commission, were a major victory for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as his Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies had previously won just four significant state elections since he was elected in 1998.
Some 52 million people cast ballots on Monday in the last major test of party strength before next year’s parliamentary elections.
Defying pre-election polls, the BJP won in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states.
Congress, the favourite in all of the states except Madhya Pradesh, won only in New Delhi.
“It’s a much greater-than-expected sweep for the BJP. It’s a shock to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party is going to be in deep trouble if it doesn’t get its act together,” political commentator Inder Malhotra said.
However, Malhotra didn’t see any threat to Gandhi’s position because of a lack of strong challengers among colleagues.
Sonia Gandhi belongs to India’s Nehru political family, its most famous. Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi all served as prime minister. Sonia married Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 and made India her home.
“I don’t think it’s a vote against Sonia Gandhi,” said Mushirul Hasan, a political analyst and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Clearly, the voter was not happy with the governance of the party in the three states.”
People have been complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Madhya Pradesh and the bad handling of the drought in Rajasthan, he said.
Support for the BJP may also have been boosted by recent peace initiatives with rival Pakistan, including a cease-fire in disputed Kashmir and the resumption of air links. The economy, expected to grow by 7% this year, also likely played a role.
BJP President Venkaiah Naidu said the state election victories were “an endorsement of (the national coalition government’s) policies by the people”.
The latest count of districts showed the BJP had won 171 seats out of a total of 230 seats in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. Congress won only 37. The rest of the seats went to smaller parties and independent candidates
The vote was closer in neighbouring tribal state of Chhattisgarh, where the BJP and Congress pulled 50 and 36 seats, respectively.
But Congress lost badly in northwestern Rajasthan, getting only 55 seats to the BJP’s 122 out of the 200 legislature seats.
Congress held on to New Delhi state for a second term, winning 47 of the 70 seats. The BJP won 20 seats.