INDIA’S main Hindu nationalist party appeared to make strong electoral gains in four heartland states yesterday, sidelining the ruling Congress party in a race seen as a test before next year’s general election, according to preliminary results.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has waged a fierce campaign fronted by its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has charmed businesses but worried critics that his rise could worsen sectarian tensions between India’s majority Hindus and its 138 million Muslims.
Preliminary results released yesterday showed BJP trouncing Congress in the Indian capital, northwest Rajasthan and landlocked Madhya Pradesh. The race for central Chhattisgarh was neck-and-neck.
As the votes were being counted, dozens of BJP supporters held an impromptu street fest outside the party’s Delhi headquarters, dancing to drum beats and setting off fireworks, while the area outside Congress headquarters was deserted.
Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala called the results disappointing but conceded “we have lost” in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The elections were seen as an important gauge of voter sentiment in this secular democracy of 1.2 billion, where there are no reliable opinion countrywide polls and at least one-fifth of the 800 million-strong electorate will be youths casting their first general election votes next year.
Ballots from a fifth state that voted, Mizoram in the northeast, will be counted today.
Overall, Congress – led by a dynasty descended from India’s first prime minister that for decades has dominated national politics – was seen to lose ground because of sustained national focus on corruption.
Congress has also taken a beating over stalled economic reforms and the soaring cost of living, exacerbated by the slowdown in economic growth from averages above 8 per cent for five years up to 2011 to below 5 per cent today.
“Congress is getting in the neck on two sides – one for not being liberal enough, not giving enough incentives to corporates,” said political analyst Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jaharwalal Nehru University in Delhi. “On the other side, the poor and lower middle-class are saying, ‘what about us, what are we going to get?’”
In the race for the 70-member Delhi Assembly, Congress’ chief minister Sheila Dikshit was denied a fourth consecutive term as Delhi’s top elected official.
A new political party called Aam Aadmi Party – or Common Man’s Party – played spoiler in the race, campaigning in Delhi’s poorest neighbourhoods and pushing Congress into third place. Preliminary results suggested BJP would win 31 seats and the debutant party 27, with Congress collecting only nine.
Hundreds of AAP members danced wildly in the street outside the party’s Delhi office while holding up brooms – the new party’s symbol, alluding to its top platform promise to sweep corruption out of the ruling class. The party’s leader, former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, has said it hopes next to campaign nationally.
It appeared to be a stunning fall for Congress, which took 43 seats in the last Delhi elections, and experts partly blamed anger over the deadly gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus last December and a corruption scandal involving the 2010 Commonweath Games.
“We accept our defeat and we will analyse what went wrong,” Ms Dikshit told reporters after resigning as chief minister.