Gandhi party sweeps board in state polls

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The Independent Online
INDIA'S POLITICS entered a new phase of uncertainty yesterday when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the central government, was humiliated by the Congress party in regional elections.

Congress, led by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, won convincingly in state legislature elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.

In each case Congress reversed the BJP's supremacy, and in Madhya Pradesh surprised even their own supporters by the scale of their success.

The results were variously seen as a personal triumph for Sonia Gandhi, a thumbs-down for the BJP's ineffective rule, and an angry reaction to soaring prices of basic commodities.

Onions, for example, the most basic staple of the Indian diet after rice, have risen in price by more than 1,000 per cent in recent months, and the government, which H-bombed its way into the world's awareness in May, has been unable to think of any way to control the inflation.

The defeats provoked a flurry of speculation about how much longer the government can survive. It is a baggy coalition of 19 partners, few of which have much more in common than the desire to be in power. Some of them will now be tempted to peel away and back Congress in early elections.

But Sonia Gandhi, who has now received her first popular endorsement since taking over as leader of Congress in April, is unlikely to be rushed into a hasty attempt to pull down the government.

Her strategy so far has been to let it fall apart of its own accord rather than risk public anger by working to hasten it - and the strategy proved correct at the weekend.

As one of the BJP's star players, Sushma Swaraj, put it ruefully as the results were still coming in: "Our house was burnt down by the people living in it." Mrs Gandhi told a television interviewer: "We have gained a lot of strength, but we have to get down to work."

When asked whether she would seek an early vote of no confidence against the government, she said: "We ought not to rush into certain situations. I wouldn't like to do so."

But the BJP's losses bring much closer the day when India is likely to get its fourth member of the Nehru dynasty as prime minister, although the first one born outside the country. In all, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi ruled India for more than 38 years.

The BJP government will do its best to stagger on regardless. The BJP's parliamentary leaders were due to meet their allies yesterday. Admitting defeat, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, said voters appeared to want a change, although he insisted that the reverses in the polls would not stop the country's economic reform programme. However, a worsening economic recession will now be aggravated by investor nervousness at the return of political volatility.

Jairam Ramesh, secretary of Congress's economic cell, predicted that another general election would be held between April and September of next year, after a second wave of regional elections that may well humiliate the BJP further.

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