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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
A major test for Congress

By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC Correspondent in Mumbai

Congress President Sonia Gandhi in Mumbai
Congress could suffer from an anti incumbency factor

Wednesday's elections in the Indian state of Maharashtra are being seen as the first major test for the left of centre Congress party after its surprise victory May's general election.

Governed by a Congress-led coalition for the last five years, Maharashtra is a politically crucial state, electing 48 out of the 540 MPs to the Lok Sabha or the lower house of the national parliament.

But it is also the economic powerhouse of India with its capital city Mumbai (Bombay) being the financial capital of the country.

Though there are more than 2,600 candidates in the fray for the 288-member state assembly, the real contest is between the Congress and its allies and the right wing Hindu nationalist combine of the Shiv Sena and the BJP.

Sabotage from within

The presence of a large number of rebel candidates has ensured that the contest does not remain that straightforward.

According to analysts both the Congress and its allies and the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance are now vulnerable to sabotage from within their ranks.

Slums and High-rises in Bombay, India
Mumbai is home to some of the India's richest and poorest people

The situation has been further complicated by the decision of two regional parties to put up a large number of candidates.

Both the Samajwadi party, which enjoys the support of the backward castes and the minority Muslim community, and Bahujan Samaj Party which draws its support from low caste Hindus or dalits, have the potential to adversely affect the prospects of the Congress which is otherwise seen as the natural choice of the poor and the deprived.

Though most opinion polls are giving an edge to the Congress led alliance, the party leadership is being cautious.

Seasoned Congress party strategist, Ahmed Patel, told the BBC that it is facing a tough contest.

Crowd puller

"We would have won quite comfortably. It will still be a Congress led government but the contest is quite keen.

"Much will depend on how many of our votes are taken away by the rebel candidates. Also [the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party] Mayawati is making quite a splash in some areas of the state," he said.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, the biggest crowd puller during the campaign has been the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi.

Bal Thackeray on a Bombay rickshaw
Illness had prevented Bal Thackeray from fully participating

On the last day of campaigning on Monday she made a whistle stop tour across Mumbai - India's largest city - where she addressed as many as 20 election rallies.

But the track record of the Congress-led alliance in Maharashtra during the last five years has been dismal.

The party leadership in the state has been weak and ineffective, while rampant infighting has not helped matters.

Once the showpiece of Indian economy and the country's most prosperous state, Maharashtra has now run up debts totalling nearly $19bn.

To offset this, the Congress party is trying to cash in on the charisma of its principal campaigner, Mrs Gandhi, while exploiting its recent victory in the national elections.

Anti-incumbency factor

It is in effect asking voters to elect it in the state so that the same party is in power nationally and regionally. It says that this will ultimately translate into the better development of Maharashtra.

But they will first have to combat the anti-incumbency factor which has seen the undoing of many governments in recent Indian elections.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left with Maharashtra state Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde (centre)
Congress is pulling out all the stops to win the vote

In an election where no emotional issue is dominating the agenda, local issues of development and governance are likely to be critical.

While the score card of the governing Congress alliance is not flattering on these fronts, the impression one gets from visiting some areas in Mumbai is that the opposition parties have not been able to take advantage of the situation.

They are dominated by the ultra rightwing Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena which is led by the controversial but charismatic Bal Thackeray.

Ill health has prevented Mr Thackeray from addressing more than a handful of meetings in these elections and his absence seems to be affecting the prospects of his party.

The Shiv Sena ally and the principal opposition party in the country - the BJP - is still not showing signs of recovering from its shock defeat in the national elections in May this year.

Despite the apparent disarray in the opposition ranks, it is likely to be a close contest and a few seats either way could well make the difference between victory and defeat.

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