Elections in India point to political upheaval ahead

The poor showing for the ruling Congress Party in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh suggests the government could be turned out in national elections ahead.

Supporters of the Samajwadi Party celebrate outside their party office in New Delhi March 6. India's Congress party trailed in fourth place as vote counting neared its end in Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday, a bitter election blow to Rahul Gandhi who had staked his political future on reviving his party's fortunes in the populous northern state.

The poor performance of India’s ruling Congress Party in the Uttar Pradesh state elections suggest that larger political changes are around the corner in the world's largest democracy. 

“The writing is on the wall,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, a New Delhi based political analyst. “Congress will not do well in the 2014 [national] elections.” 

The party was counting on the dogged campaigning of Rahul Gandhi, who is a descendant of three prime ministers as the son Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. The party will now have to decide whether to delay fronting Mr. Gandhi as their standard bearer in national elections at a point when other leaders like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are advanced in years and hobbled by scandals within their governing coalition. 

"The defeat in Uttar Pradesh is a good lesson for me,'' Gandhi told reporters. ''I led from the front in UP and the blame is entirely mine." 

Rahul said the Congress' organizational structure in the state was weak and needs to be shored up ahead of the 2014 national elections.

With 200 million people and 80 seats in the nation’s parliament, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh holds immense influence in the country’s politics and has been billed as a bellwether for the coming national contest. 

Congress hoped to win enough seats in the 403-member assembly to form part of the new government, but came in fourth place winning fewer than 40 seats of the originally anticipated 100. With the counting nearly completed, a regional caste party, the Samajwadi Party, won in a landslide with at least 217 seats. 

Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian analyst, says the Congress Party's poor performance is evidence the party is no longer equipped to lead the country.

“The result of the Uttar Pradesh elections are going to cause a lot of trouble for the Congress Party,” says Dr. Chellaney, who is also a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “I don’t know if they will be able to ride out the turbulence or if they will have to call early elections.”

After months of stagnant policy reforms, agitation over corruption scandals, a depreciating rupee, and high inflation, Congress is facing growing opposition from the populace. The party was counting on a strong showing in UP to win back voter support, jump-start the flagging economy, and push for needed reforms. However, the poor turn out in UP means the party is likely to continue muddling through.

Chellaney says India should go for early elections given the paralysis ahead. “The current government is paralyzed. The only way you can change things is by the formation of a new government that has a popular mandate. It could bring stability, with more forward looking ideas, and better leadership.”

But Mr. Deshmukh doubts Congress would risk calling early elections.

“Congress does not have the guts to call an early election,” says Deshmukh. “It will stick to power to the last moment. “

While it’s not clear what political party will take control in the 2014 elections, the poor performance in Uttar Pradesh is certainly a setback for Gandhi’s political ambitions. As the son of current Congress President Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, he was widely seen as being groomed to run for prime minister in 2014. But without the proven ability to rally voters in UP, and a floundering party, some political observers are expecting those plans to be put on hold.

“Rahul Gandhi was portrayed by Indian media as a rising star,” says Chellaney. “He spent two years campaigning in Uttar Pradesh only to eat humble pie.”

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