Opposition parties in India are celebrating results in recent state elections as a major blow to India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition. The opposition won legislative assembly elections in four states and a union territory.

The BJP cannot claim to be a national party since its strength is in only a few states in the north, claimed Congress Party spokesman Anil Shastri. "The (BJP) is getting irrelevant day by day in the Indian political scenario," he asserted. "The government has also become a lame duck government with its allies pulling from different sides. The election results have tremendously weakened the government at the center."

In May, the opposition Congress Party-led coalitions won assembly elections in the northeastern state of Assam, the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the union territory of Pondicherry. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) won in the eastern state of West Bengal for the sixth straight time.

The Congress Party — and parties supported by it — now leads governments in 11 of India's 28 states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar (Congress Party supported Rashtriya Janta Dal, or RJD), Karnataka, Tamil Nadu (Congress formed alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kalakam party, or AIADMK), Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Rajasthan, and Chattisgarh. The National Capital Territory, Delhi, and the union territory of Pondicherry also are ruled by the Congress Party.

But Vijay Kumar Malhotra, senior BJP lawmaker and party spokesman, downplayed the impact of the recent polls on the ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

"I do not think that the election results have any impact on the central government," he said. "The NDA is formed of different parties in Parliament. As far as the BJP is concerned, the number of seats they have in the state assemblies have increased. However, the regional parties with which the BJP formed an alliance have failed to perform well. But this will not affect the togetherness of the NDA allies."

Malhotra insisted that "almost all NDA allies have expressed their faith in Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee, and the BJP is sure that he will be able to hold the allies and government together. This government will definitely complete five years." The next national elections are scheduled for 2004.

But many Indian political analysts believe BJP defeats in Tamil Nadu and Assam, in particular, were a setback to the party.

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The national daily, The Hindu, said in a recent editorial that although the BJP is not a dominant player in those states, "there can be no denying that the national coalition as a whole has suffered a terrible loss of face, given that its key allies heading governments in Tamil Nadu and Assam — and on whom it was riding piggyback — have met with disaster at the hustings."

Ambika Soni, general secretary of the All India Congress Committee, claimed that "even Prime Minister Vajpayee does not doubt the fact that the verdict was against his government." Soni noted that the BJP ran for more than 400 seats in the four states it lost. In Kerala, where it failed to win a single seat, the party fielded 130 candidates for 140 seats.

The BJP also has lost the three by-elections held for seats in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP came in fourth as the Samajwadi Party defeated its nearest rival, a Congress Party candidate. In West Bengal, a seat that belonged to the Communist Party of India (CPI) was retained, and a third seat in Tamil Nadu that belonged to the BJP was lost to AIADMK.

"These were local elections, and we never staked claim that we would be winning the states," Narendra Modi, general secretary of the BJP. Opposition parties, however, point out that the entire top leadership of the BJP, including the prime minister, home minister, and other union ministers, had campaigned for party candidates in all four states. When the elections were announced, Vajpayee had said the results would be a referendum on the NDA government, opponents noted.

"It was of course a referendum on the policies of the government," Doraiswamy Raja of CPI said. "The economic policies of the government had undergone a scrutiny by the people and their dissatisfaction reflected in the results."

Modi conceded that "it is true that the BJP and its allies in the NDA could not make any achievements in the election. But that does not mean that the results will affect the NDA's unity," he insisted. "The BJP-led government is still ruling the country."

Political analysts, however, attribute a dispute with one of the BJP's coalition partners to the party's poor election performance. The Samata party had threatened to withdraw its support to the ruling coalition if the BJP did not ensure the reinstallation of Samata's chief minister in Manipur state. Radhabinod Koijam was voted out by the 24 legislators of the BJP in defiance of instructions from national party leadership. The BJP has admitted that factionalism in the state unit has caused problems in Manipur.

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Yogendra Yadav, fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, believes the NDA made a tactical error by magnifying the significance of the state elections during campaigns. "In fact, this election did not involve NDA in a big way," he said. " … Had the NDA not made tall claims, it would not have been a negative result for the NDA."

Yadav said the election results have had an impact on the "internal dynamics" of the NDA. "It is very clear that the transfer of votes from the partners to the BJP did not work smoothly," he said, adding that in many states the BJP had no better choice than to align with the forces available.

Analysts say the election results indicated that the BJP has not reached a position in which it can contest local elections on its own and win the parliamentary election. In southern states, where it has had success it has "piggybacked" on regional parties.

The BJP had aligned with the AIADMK in 1996 and the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) party in 1999 to gain a majority. In the southern state of Karnataka, the BJP joined hands with Janata Dal (United), which held power in the state from 1993 to 1998. In Andhra Pradesh, it has an alliance with the Telugu Desam Party, another regional party.

"Last election was the maximum the BJP could do," Raja insisted. "All their attempts to establish in [the] south, east, and west have failed. There is no state government, other than Gujarat, where BJP rules alone. It will not go beyond this."

The BJP also has suffered from the defection of some of its partners. In West Bengal, the BJP lost its ally, the Trinamul Congress, whose two leaders were cabinet ministers in Vajpayee's government. The party became uncomfortable with the BJP after forming an alliance against the CPI-M-led Left Front government in West Bengal and left the NDA weeks before the assembly election.

Trinamul Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee resigned from the cabinet, disassociated her party from the NDA and tried to tell her electorate that she had no ties with Hindu fanatics. The Trinamul Congress was soundly defeated, however, and many analysts believe that it would have fared better against the Left Front if it had stayed with the BJP. In West Bengal, the BJP's vote share shrunk from 11.1 percent in the most recent parliamentary elections to 6 percent in the state poll.

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While the AIADMK was expected to win in Tamil Nadu, the size of its victory was unexpected. The AIADMK's break with the NDA led to the coalition's downfall in 1999. The AIADMK defeated the DMK-BJP alliance, winning 196 of the 234 seats with 50 percent of the vote. In the 1996 assembly election, the DMK and its allies won 174 seats with nearly 44 percent of the vote, while in 1999 parliamentary elections it won with just over 32 percent.

AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha, who is known as Amma (mother), was disqualified from contesting elections due to her conviction in a corruption case. A special court sentenced her to three years imprisonment. But due to her party's landslide victory, she was sworn in as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

The BJP's problems in the state began before the election, with the NDA losing important partners. First to walk out was the Pattani Makkal Kachchi, a party of lower castes, followed by Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), an ally of the BJP union government. The MDMK decided not to contest elections in partnership with the DMK, and the BJP leadership could not patch up differences between its two allies.

The BJP also has lost ground in Kerala, where the Congress party-led United Democratic Front secured a majority of the 99 seats. The state has never sent a BJP member to the state assembly or the Lok Sabha. While the BJP had won 5.48 percent in the last assembly election in 1996, and more than 8 percent in the 1999 parliamentary election, the party won just 5.04 percent last month. The BJP's effort to strike an alliance with any of the regional parties was unsuccessful.

In Assam, the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was shaky even before the results were out. The BJP unit in Assam alleged on May 11, two days before the results were known, that the AGP did not vote for BJP candidates. State BJP leaders, including its president Rajen Gohain, opposed an alliance with the AGP, but were overruled by BJP central leaders, particularly Lal Krishna Advani, union home minister.

A section of angry BJP leaders in Assam quit the party to protest not being consulted about the BJP's alliance with AGP. They formed another faction of the BJP in the state. The Congress Party won 71 of the Assam's 126 assembly seats, compared with 28 for the AGP-BJP alliance.

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Despite these setbacks, Yadav, of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, does not believe that the BJP has reached its saturation point in vote share. "There are historical reasons for why the BJP's agenda could not work in [the] south," he said. "It has a chauvinist northern agenda. But the BJP is a party with a long-term vision. Temporarily, it is true that its vote share has come down. But it gave many surprises. In fact, in southern states, it is not its absence but the presence that is surprising."

Meanwhile, the head of the NDA alliance, Prime Minister Vajpayee, admitted that "warning bells are ringing, in the form of assembly election results." But BJP president Jena Krishnamurthy has declared that the "real test" for the party will be in Uttar Pradesh,the most populated state. The BJP has directed the Uttar Pradesh unit of the party to gear up for an early election in the state.

The BJP was expecting an election in Uttar Pradesh in March 2002 because the party's government was formed in early 1997. However, a petition filed in Allahabad High Court one month ago claims that the Uttar Pradesh assembly's current term began with its constitution in October 1996. If the court accepts the argument, the state will hold an election in November. BJP leaders, who did not want to be named, admitted that the party is not prepared for the election in the state.

Krishnamurthy has confirmed that the party sent a directive to its unit to prepare for the election. "The BJP is viewing the challenges in Uttar Pradesh because of its political importance of the Hindi belt," he said.

An anti-incumbency wave in Uttar Pradesh does not promise a bright future for the party, analysts say. The BJP's performance in 1999 parliamentary elections also was disappointing. "The assembly election's results in four states did not affect the party seriously, but the Uttar Pradesh election will be a real test for the BJP and its growth as a political party," said a BJP leader who wished to remain anonymous. "If the party would not win a comfortable majority, one can be sure that it has reached its saturation point."

The BJP already has asked the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological parent, to raise the morale of its cadres and prepare them for Uttar Pradesh campaign.

Related Elsewhere

Elections India includes an explanation of the electoral system of India, a breakdown of the recent state elections and a listing of the parties.

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The defeat is already raising tensions in the ruling coalition, reports the World Socialist Web Site.

According to BBC News, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are meeting to chart post-elections strategy.

The official Web sites of the Bharatiya Janata Party, The Communist Party of India, The Samajwadi Party, Telugudesam Party, and The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

The Hindu online site is in English.

For more articles, see Yahoo's full coverage area on India.

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