India's governing Indian National Congress party suffered a series of defeats in elections in five states for which the results were released Tuesday, with regional political players making most of the gains. The losses suggest that the paralysis of the central government that is undermining badly needed economic growth may not abate any time soon.
All eyes in the country were on the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of nearly 200 million people. There the governing Bahujan Samaj Party and its chief minister, the enigmatic Dalit leader Mayawati, were ousted in a sweep by the Samajwadi Party.
The Samajwadi Party has governed Uttar Pradesh three times before, without much to recommend it, but its landslide at the polls (226 seats of 403) appeared to reflect frustration with the alleged corruption of Mayawati's party and her autocratic rule. The BSP won 80 seats.
Congress finished last with only 38 seats. That is more than its tally of 22 in the last vote, yet the result still came across as a loss because Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country's governing dynasty, had invested huge political capital in this vote. Although he holds a national seat and wasn't running for a state one, he campaigned hard across Uttar Pradesh for four months, trailed by a vast pack of media, and vowed Congress would take at least 100 seats, and thus have a decisive role in forming a coalition government.
Yesterday a shaken-looking Mr. Gandhi – the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, grandson of Indira Gandhi and son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi – took personal ownership of the loss in Uttar Pradesh. "I led this campaign and I was the person in front," he said. "The responsibility is mine."
But others in the party rushed to shield him, saying poor party structure and organization were to blame, in an apparent attempt to protect his image as their next leader.
"Rahul is dented," Seema Chisti, Delhi bureau chief for The Indian Express, a leading newspaper, said flatly. "Madam will have to come back and take charge," she added, using the Congress party's reflexive honorific for its president, Sonia Gandhi.
Not that that means Mr. Gandhi risks losing his position as leader-in-waiting: "In the Congress party you don't rebel against the family because the family is principle vote getter," Ms. Chisti said. "There will be backbiting and carping – they are not 100 per cent sure that Rahul is ready to succeed."
The SP government in Uttar Pradesh joins four other major regional parties in office – they tend to have a strictly local focus and little national agenda.
But they have a new taste for power, and if they join together they will present a huge potential challenge to Congress, which governs in an increasingly shaky coalition, in the next national poll in 2012, said C. P. Bhambhri, a professor in the Centre for Political Studies in Delhi and former dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"Congress is in a very weak wicket, a vulnerable position," he added. "But it also has many cards because once you are in centre, you can play one against the other and you have huge resources at your disposal. Things will start to become clear in the next six months.
The Congress party has been dogged by accusations of lack of leadership and failure to take action against corruption; both promised economic reforms and an ambitious social agenda have stalled as the party founders.
Congress also lost in Punjab, where the Shiromani Akali Dal was returned to office in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indian voters have a fierce anti-incumbency streak and this was the first time ever that a government was re-elected in Punjab. Congress couldn't capture the Sikh-majority state, although the party has a Sikh prime minister in Manmohan Singh, and even though the SAD also faces strong allegations of corruption – likely because voters blame the central government for the economic slowdown that has left Punjab hard hard.
Nor could Congress take the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where it split the vote almost evenly with its national rival, the BJP – even though the state has shown few signs of development under the BJP in the past five years. It is not yet clear which party will succeed in wooing a handful of independents to form the government there.
And Congress lost Goa – a relatively liberal state with a huge Christian population – to the Hindu-nationalist BJP.
Congress won only in the northern state of Manipur, which has 2.7 million people in a country of 1.3 billion people – it is India's Prince Edward Island, if PEI had an armed separatist insurgency. There, analysts agreed, the Congress victory belonged entirely to a widely loved chief minister, O. Ibobi Singh, and had little to do with the party.
All that said, the BJP does not have a great deal to be happy about either: its share of the vote declined in every state compared to five years ago. Its leaders were sombre as they took questions;. Sushma Swaraj, the BJP's Leader of the Opposition in Parliament in New Delhi, said the party "could have done better" and credited the appeal of regional parties to people seeking service delivery.
Ms. Chisti of The Indian Express warned that these vote results don't necessarily predict anything for the next national vote. "If you look at the record, Indians have voted differently in national elections than they do in the states, every single time."