NEW DELHI (AP) — India's main Hindu nationalist party appeared to make strong electoral gains in four heartland states Sunday, sidelining the ruling Congress party in a race seen as a test before next year's general election, according to preliminary results.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has waged a fierce campaign fronted by its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has charmed businesses but worried critics that his rise could worsen sectarian tensions between India's majority Hindus and its 138 million Muslims.
Preliminary results released Sunday showed BJP trouncing Congress in the Indian capital, northwest Rajasthan and landlocked Madhya Pradesh. The race for central Chhattisgarh was neck-and-neck.
As the votes were being counted, dozens of BJP supporters held an impromptu street fest outside the party's Delhi headquarters, dancing to drum beats and setting off firecrackers, while the area outside Congress headquarters was deserted.
Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala called the results disappointing but conceded "we have lost" in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Modi offered congratulations by Twitter to Madhya Pradesh's incumbent chief minister "for BJP's wonderful performance," and to the party in Rajasthan for "the historic victory."
The elections were seen as an important gauge of voter sentiment in this secular democracy of 1.2 billion, where there are no reliable opinion countrywide polls and at least one-fifth of the 800 million-strong electorate will be youths casting their first general election votes next year.
TV news channels gave breathless coverage to Sunday's vote count, offering a taste of the nationwide contest to come. Ballots from a fifth state that voted, Mizoram in the northeast, will be counted Monday.
Overall, Congress — led by a dynasty descended from India's first prime minister that for decades has dominated national politics — was seen to lose ground due to sustained national focus on widespread and systematic graft, with several members from the party, as well as the BJP, embroiled in corruption scandals. Meanwhile, bribery has remained an everyday feature in routine tasks, from getting a marriage license to securing a child's place in school.
Congress has also taken a beating over stalled economic reforms and the soaring costs of living, exacerbated by the slowdown in economic growth from averages above 8 percent for five years up to 2011 to below 5 percent today.
"Congress is getting in the neck on two sides — one for not being liberal enough, not giving enough incentives to corporates," said political analyst Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jaharwalal Nehru University in Delhi. "On the other side, the poor and lower middle-class are saying, 'what about us, what are we going to get?'"
In the race for the 70-member Delhi Assembly, Congress' Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was denied a fourth consecutive term as Delhi's top elected official. Dikshit, 76, has presided over the city as it burgeoned into a megapolis of nearly 17 million people, many of them impoverished migrants in search of jobs.
A new political party called Aam Aadmi Party — or Common Man's Party — played spoiler in the race, campaigning in Delhi's poorest neighborhoods and pushing Congress into third place. Preliminary results suggested BJP would win 31 seats and the debutant party 27, with Congress collecting only nine.
Hundreds of AAP members danced wildly in the street outside the party's Delhi office while holding up brooms — the new party's symbol, alluding to its top platform promise to sweep corruption out of the ruling class. The party's leader, former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, has said it hopes next to campaign nationally.
"It is very much fabulous. For the first time we are contesting elections, seven months of hard work," said party member Balaji, a 26-year-old software engineer from the southern tech city of Bangalore who goes by one name. "We can give this country, this state, a very good opposition."
It appeared to be a stunning fall for Congress, which took 43 seats in the last Delhi elections, and experts partly blamed anger over the deadly gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus last December and a corruption scandal involving the 2010 Commonweath Games.
"We accept our defeat and we will analyze what went wrong," Dikshit told reporters after resigning as chief minister. "We respect what the people of Delhi have decided and thank them for supporting us for last 15 years."
Both the AAP and BJP capitalized on Congress' battered reputation. For several years after Congress won the national government in 2004, technocrat Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was praised for leading India to breakneck growth and economic reforms that enticed foreign investment.
But as the economy slowed and scandals surfaced, Congress found itself wrangling with regional coalition partners and unable to push through further reforms. In Rajasthan, for example, years of political infighting prevented a new law on free medicines and ambulance services from coming into force until this year — leaving little time to make an impact that could have helped Congress in the state's vote.
Congress lost control of Rajasthan to BJP, with preliminary results giving Congress only 21 seats to BJP's 159. The preliminary results also suggested BJP would easily retain Madhya Pradesh, with 157 seats to Congress' 65.
Meanwhile, India's benchmark Sensex rose by 1.4 percent in the two days after the recent elections as markets cheered early signs of a strong showing by BJP.
The BJP's Modi, a three-time leader in Gujarat, is credited with turning his western state into an industrial haven. But he has been a polarizing figure as well, with critics questioning whether he can be a truly secular leader over India's cacophony of cultures defined by caste, clan, tribe or religion, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.
For years, Modi has dodged allegations that he and his Hindu fundamentalist party colleagues looked the other way as marauding Hindu mobs killed and burned their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat in 2002, leaving more than 1,100 people dead in one of India's worst outbursts of communal violence.
No evidence directly links Modi to the violence. The Supreme Court criticized his government, however, for failing to prosecute Hindu rioters who justified the rampage as revenge for a train fire that killed 60 Hindus. An independent 2006 probe determined the fire was an accident, but a 2008 state commission said it was planned by Muslims.
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