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Election test for India's Gandhi dynasty

07 march 2012, 17:52
India's Congress party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi. ©AFP
India's Congress party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi. ©AFP
Early results Tuesday from crucial state elections in India indicated a mid-term blow for the national government and a setback for the fortunes of the Gandhi political dynasty, AFP reports.

The most important outcome from the five states which went to the polls will be from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and its most politically significant where 200 million people live amid some of the most entrenched poverty on the planet.

Preliminary trends as reported by leading television networks NDTV and CNN-IBN showed the Congress party, which runs the federal government, trailing in fourth place, marking only a slight improvement from the last election in 2007.

The state polls are seen as an important test of popularity for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scandal-tainted central government and what happens in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is regarded as a pointer to national politics, with general elections due by 2014.

Rahul Gandhi, the next in line in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, has led campaigning there for Congress.

The 41-year-old presumed "prime-minister-in-waiting" faces the biggest test yet of his credibility as he looks to improve on the dismal record of Congress locally that stretches back 22 years.

The Indian Express said "there's little doubt that the UP result will be seen as a verdict on the brand of politics that Rahul pushed (on the campaign trail)."

Success would energise his supporters and perhaps hasten his ascent to national leadership at a time when his mother Sonia, the president of the party, has been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness, rumoured to be cancer.

Failure will feed the doubters -- and there are many -- as well as interest in his sister Priyanka, whom some Gandhi loyalists still prefer.

"As the family has scripted it, this should be the age of Rahul," concluded Outlook, a weekly news magazine, in a front-page article headlined "What if he fails?"

Even before counting began, the omens were causing concern. One exit poll published at the weekend indicated Congress was expected to increase its strength in the 403-seat state assembly from 22 to only about 50.

"His (Rahul's) efforts will be well-rewarded," Congress spokeswoman Renuka Chowdary insisted at the party's national headquarters in New Delhi on Monday.

Following a record high turn-out of 59.5 percent, the exit surveys also suggested that incumbent Chief Minister Mayawati, a colourful low-caste leader famed for her handbags and taste for expensive statues, would lose office.

Early counting -- which like all the results so far takes in only a small proportion of votes cast -- indicated huge losses for her BSP party and a comeback for the regional Samajwadi Party (SP) which draws on support from low-caste farmers and Muslims in the huge state which borders Nepal.

Congress is looking to either take or return to power in four other states, namely northwestern farming heartland Punjab, the holiday playground of Goa, mountainous Uttarakhand, and northeastern Manipur.

A victory in Manipur, where Congress is historically dominant, looks almost certain, but the polls in the other three states are seen as too close to call.

The results come at a crucial time for 79-year-old Prime Minister Singh, who has been assailed by critics for his hands-off leadership style and his management of corruption scandals.

Rahul, who is an elected national lawmaker from UP, has pitched himself to the voting masses as a man who understands their everyday problems of corruption, unemployment and caste discrimination.

He says he wants to bring development and better governance to notoriously corrupt and economically deprived UP, which has a population larger than Brazil.

The elections in the five states were held in stages over the last five weeks, beginning on January 28 in Manipur and finishing at the weekend in UP and Goa.

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