Just a day after a mild earthquake hit New Delhi, the results of five state assembly elections on Tuesday sent a much bigger tremor through the nation’s capital.
The biggest shock came from the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.The Congress party was hoping to improve on its previous performance in this politically crucial state, with ahigh decibel campaign launched by its young leader and political heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. He travelled extensively to try revive the party’s fortunes in the state, after a couple of decades in the wilderness. But despite such a heavy political investment, the Congress could improve its margin by just six seats from its disastrous performance in 2007, when it got 22 seats out of a possible 403.
There was more bad news for the party from the north Indian state of Punjab, one of the richer states in the country. The party failed to capitalize on the heavy anti-incumbency trend against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and its Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) partner, losing an opportunity to wrest power from a regime that was perceived to be highly corrupt.
Congress meanwhile lost power in the western Indian state of Goa to the opposition BJP.
One bit of good news came from the tiny northeastern state of Manipur, where Congress managed to retain power for a third consecutive time. There’s also a window of opportunity for the party in the Himalayan state of Uttrakhand, where it managed to outsmart the ruling BJP by securing 32 seats out of 70.
One party that emerged a clear winner from Tuesday’s results in Uttar Pradesh was the Samajwadi Party, a party representing the so-called backward caste and communities, which received 224 seats. It defeated the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a political group drawn mainly from the Dalit community, traditionally known as the untouchables.
So what trends do these regional trends suggest?
Voter turnout in the elections was unusually high, demonstrating the vitality of Indian democracy and somewhat discrediting the arguments to the contrary by activists such as Anna Hazare. Indeed, the anti-corruption movement didn’t have much of an impact in the elections – the SP has a very bad track record on tackling corruption, yet the electorate still went for the party. Similarly in the Punjab, the ruling coalition of the BJP and a regional party was mired in allegations of corruption, yet managed to score a win. This suggests that voters are more interested in results than perceptions of integrity.
Moving forward, the success of regional parties makes the task of governance in New Delhi more difficult. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has been hamstrung by repeated opposition from its regional allies on some of the most important policy decisions, including economic reforms, foreign investment in the retail sector and other important issues.
The next big challenge for the Congress party will be whether it can get the president of its own choice in the election scheduled for early July – the party can’t nominate its own candidate without the support of the regional parties, something which could prove a challenge.
One of the biggest questions of all, of course, is what to make of the political fortunes of Rahul Gandhi. After the second consecutive failure of the 41-year-old scion to really register a presence for the Congress party in politically significant states, his future is uncertain. “I was leading and we lost. It’s my responsibility,” he said.