Congress party falters as BJP wins at least four Indian state elections

India's oldest political party, the Congress, loses heavily in all four state elections whose results have been announced, in a sign of its weakening popularity ahead of national elections next summer. Samanth Subramanian reports

Supporters present a flower garland to Arvind Kejriwal, centre, leader of India’s Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, which was a close runner up behind the BJP in the Delhi state election. Tsering Topgyal / AP
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Samanth Subramanian

Foreign Correspondent

NEW DELHI // India’s oldest political party, the Congress, lost heavily in all four state elections whose results were announced yesterday, a sign of its weakening popularity going into a national election next summer.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged on top in polls held over the past month in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In the most watched of these elections, in Delhi, an upstart third party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was a close runner up, having campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

The votes polled in another state, Mizoram, will be counted today.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP handily held on to power, winning another term with 166 out of 230 seats in the state legislature, up from 143. In Rajasthan, the BJP trounced the ruling Congress, winning 162 of 199 seats, up from 78.

The margin was much narrower in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP held on to power by winning 47 out of 90 seats, compared to the Congress’s 41. In the last election in the state, the BJP had won 50 seats.

Delhi’s voters gave no party a clear majority, however. The BJP won 32 seats out of 70, compared to the AAP’s 28. Other parties won two seats and the Congress won only 8, a massive defeat for the three-term chief minister Sheila Dikshit. Ms Dikshit even lost her own constituency, by a humiliating 22,000 votes, to Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the AAP.

“Naturally, these results call for deep introspection,” Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, said at a press conference. “Obviously people are unhappy, or they would not have given these results.”

Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, called the AAP’s performance “quite spectacular”.

“People thought that even three or four seats would be an achievement for the AAP,” Mr Mahapatra said. “It shows how unpredictable election results can be in India.”

Raucous crowds surrounded the campaign headquarters of the AAP in central Delhi, with many people waving brooms – the party’s electoral symbol – and dancing.

In the afternoon, after his victory was confirmed, Mr Kejriwal leaned out of a first-floor window and addressed the crowd.

“This is not a win for me, this is a win for the people of the New Delhi constituency,” he said. Then, in a possible hint at his party’s participation in the national election, he said: “I am sure that finally the country will triumph, the people will triumph, democracy will triumph, India will triumph.”

There is uncertainty over which party will form the government in Delhi, given that the BJP has not won an outright majority.

Mr Kejriwal has said repeatedly that he would not form a coalition with either the Congress or the BJP, since he considers both parties to be tainted and corrupt.

“Our party doesn’t worry about things like who will be chief minister. We worry about how to help the country,” he told a press scrum yesterday morning.

Delhi thus faces one of two possibilities. The BJP might, without any objection from the Congress and the AAP, form a minority government, its stability contingent upon the opposition’s willingness to let it survive. Alternatively, Delhi might have to plunge right back into another election to seek a clearer mandate.

The AAP’s unexpectedly strong performance in its very first election has been interpreted as a sign of disaffection with established parties such as the Congress and the BJP, and of a desire for new, cleaner politics.

The Congress admitted as much yesterday. Janardhan Dwivedi, a Congress spokesman, said the AAP’s emergence was “a warning to major political parties”.

The BJP projected its successes as part of a wave of support for Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the party’s prime ministerial candidate, who campaigned extensively in each of the states.

“Modi is a huge factor behind the victory,” said Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Rajasthan.

She also said, however: “The people of Rajasthan are fed up of the bad governance of the Congress.”

Mr Mahapatra said that it would not be appropriate to use the term “Modi wave”, as the BJP has been doing. “The results are still mixed. In Chhattisgarh, the parties were neck and neck, and in Delhi the BJP didn’t get a landslide.”

Mr Modi has been a polarising figure because of the anti-Muslim riots that happened on his watch in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Mahapatra said.

But these election results seem to show “that Modi is acceptable to large sections of the population now”.