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Why India's state elections matter

By Mahesh Rangarajan
Political analyst

Delhi state Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit after her win
The result in Delhi was particularly positive for the Congress party

The results of five recent state assembly elections in India represent a victory for the ballot over the bullet, coming as they do just on the heels of the terror attacks on Mumbai (Bombay).

Voter turnout in all states was at a record high, even touching 70% in Madhya Pradesh in central India.

The results themselves were clear, with the Congress party taking three and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) two.

The meaning and portents may well hold clues for the general elections due to be held before May 2009. The Congress-led coalition in Delhi will draw strength from its performance.

Congress has just 150 seats in a 543-member House of the People. What will be heartening for it is the voters' rejection of the opposition's attempt to play the anti-terror card. The Mumbai attacks became an 11th-hour poll issue, but the campaign fell flat.

Capital victory

This was especially true of Delhi and Rajasthan, in each of which Muslims form a significant percentage of the population - about one in 10 voters. Terror as an issue did not polarise voters on religious lines; in fact the bid to politicise the subject did not yield a political benefit.

India is too large and diverse a country to allow for any easy prediction based on a few states

Delhi's election results matter for the larger picture and not just because it is the national capital. India is urbanising rapidly and the city voter has more clout than in the past. The ability of Congress to hold together the middle classes and the poor has been tested. The fact it has come through in the metropolis with the highest per capita income will give it fresh hope.

The BJP in turn has held on to power in the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In both, welfare programmes - especially those for farmers and women voters - played a role in keeping voters on side as it secured an unprecedented second term in power. Both are largely rural, with large Scheduled Tribe populations.

Even here, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and other smaller formations undercut the larger parties. Congress's failure to secure a clear majority in Rajasthan and its second successive defeat in Madhya Pradesh had a lot to do with underclass voters drifting away from its camp. The drift has not wiped out the Congress but it has dented its vote banks.

ELECTION TIMETABLE
14 and 20 November: Chattisgarh
27 November: Madhya Pradesh
17 November to 24 December: Jammu and Kashmir
29 November: Delhi
2 December: Mizoram
4 December: Rajasthan

State elections matter, especially because the Congress had lost as many as eight in a row. India has 28 states, and the political texture and social fabric of regions varies widely.

What has been key to the party's success has been its all-India spread, but it is a shadow of what it was in the past. Its three victories will give it much-needed confidence but do not mark a breakthrough.

The larger picture of slackening growth, especially of manufacturing and of exports, will continue to be a concern. After five years of growth at more than 8%, India is now seeing a slowdown.

Indian voters are highly sensitive to economic issues and even 2004, a good year for growth, saw the BJP-led governing alliance lose in the general elections.

Congress has also been haunted by the prospect of what poll analysts call anti-incumbency, the tendency of voters in India to simply throw the government out on voting day.

In this sense, the results of the state elections show three chief ministers coming back to office. In each case, a strong welfare record with the personal imprimatur of the chief executive played a major role in crafting a win.

Other players

Yet, there is a caveat in order. Four of the five states saw a straight fight between India's two largest parties. But large regions - especially in the populous north and also in the peninsular south of India - have other players in the race.

Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati waves to her supporters during an election rally, in New Delhi, India, Monday, Nov. 24, 2008
Other politicians such as BSP leader Mayawati are key players

Regional parties may well hold the key in a manner they do not in these states. Seeing them as a simple forerunner of the larger electoral battle has misled leaders in the past.

In 1998, Congress swept these very states, and triggered a collapse of the BJP-led coalition in Delhi. The results were a setback as the governing coalition came back with a clear majority.

In 2003, the drama was played out in reverse, with Atal Behari Vajpayee's party winning all but Delhi. It brought the dates of the general elections forward but got a jolt as it lost its majority.

India is too large and diverse a country to allow for any easy prediction based on a few states.

But the results do still matter. A decisive win would have enabled the BJP to take the lead in rebuilding a larger alliance.

Conversely, the Congress performance will reinforce the alliance in power in Delhi as its gears up for the polls.

India's politics have yet to settle into a clear pattern, with the general elections only weeks away. Both the big players are still in the ring and either could deliver a knock-out blow.

The terror card has not gone away but will go on the back burner.

But the elections when they come will be fought on issues of bread, butter and governance.

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