Tough fight awaits Congress despite state wins

Tough fight awaits Congress despite state wins

Mumbai: Victory in three state elections by the ruling Congress party in the face of an economic slowdown and fallout from the Mumbai attacks are no guarantee of success in next year’s general election, analysts said on Tuesday, 9 December.

Final results from month-long polls in five states, which came in on Monday and Tuesday, were seen as a first test of the political waters before next year’s poll.

Analysts said Congress may opt for a later date for the national election in the first half of 2009 that will pit its coalition against an opposition alliance led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Congress won Delhi and Rajasthan, where the BJP was incumbent, and picked up Mizoram in a landslide.

The BJP stayed in power with a convincing victory in Madhya Pradesh and won in neighbouring Chhattisgarh.

The results may be a morale boost for Congress, which has suffered a string of state election defeats to the BJP in the last year, but could not be used to forecast the outcome of the national vote, said Rajeev Malik, an economist at Macquarie Securities in Singapore.

“The basic lesson for the BJP is it doesn’t have its act together as selling itself as a viable alternative to Congress. But Congress also cannot afford to get complacent," Malik said.

The BJP, which had hoped its criticism of Congress as being weak on security would reap political dividends, now needs a fresh election strategy, analysts said.

Local issues

“Both political parties are still on notice," Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in The Indian Express on Tuesday.

“The fact that the BJP did not manage to take even Delhi suggests ... the party will have a steeper hill to climb."

In the days after the attacks in Mumbai that killed 173 people, there have been massive protests against government inaction. The BJP took out front-page advertisements slamming Congress as being unable to defend the nation.

But local governance issues may have trumped the economy and security this time around, and may set the tone going ahead.

“The outcome will influence the thinking in Congress and BJP about the timing and campaign themes," said Seema Desai, of London-based political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

The BJP may dilute its single-theme campaigns on terrorism and inflation, while the Congress may still keep the option of a February election on the table, she said.

She and Malik both said a later election appeared likely.

“Congress will try and push the date as much as possible, given what’s going on with the economy. Indian elections are never about an economic agenda, but some of the measures they’ve put in place may deliver results in the coming months," Malik said.

In the last few days, the government cut fuel prices, slashed interest rates and announced $4 billion of extra spending to revive economic growth.