NEW DELHI // India's ruling Congress party says a battering in key state elections this week will not undermine its fractious coalition or scare it into changing its policies ahead of a national poll in two years’ time.
“I don’t think the elections will damage the ... government,” Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader and the de facto ruler of the country, told a news conference yesterday.
“[National] elections are in 2014, this is 2012,” she added, ruling out replacing the 80-year-old prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who has held the post since 2004.
“Every election is a lesson for us, whether we win or lose. We humbly accept the people’s verdict.”
She said voters were clearly unhappy with Congress.
But the drubbing is likely to embolden Congress’s unruly allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, many of them with state-focused power bases and their own regional concerns.
With intransigent allies and a vocal Hindu nationalist-led opposition stalling critical legislation, the next test for Congress comes in July with the beginning of the Monsoon session of parliament.
With Congress weakened by the latest state elections, some analysts say the ruling coalition could become more unwieldy, making it harder for Congress to govern effectively and raising the possibility it may be forced to call early national elections.
Sushma Swaraj, a prominent member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s second-largest party and the Congress party’s main opponent, has already said her party may force an early general election.
“If circumstances are such, then there is no question, we are ready for it,” said Ms Swaraj said, who leads the BJP in the lower house where the opposition has effectively blocked any key legislation being passed in the last sitting.
Mrs Gandhi, the widow of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, said the party’s dismal showing in the five states that went to the polls was due to poor planning, weak candidates and Congress politicians splitting the vote by standing as independents after failing to win a place on the party ballot.
The party’s biggest setback was in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state with more than 200 million people – a population about the same as Brazil or Pakistan and bigger than Russia – and a critical power base in federal politics.
Although it added a few seats, with the help of a local partner, its performance fell far short of expectations in a state that is the homeland of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and where Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rahul, played a prominent campaign role.
Congress also failed to win the wealthy and heavily populated state of Punjab, where no party has won a second consecutive term since it was formed in 1966. This time, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, despite struggling with corruption allegations and internal bickering, held on.
Of the other states, Congress held on to Manipur, failed to win Goa and won the most seats in Uttarakhand, where a governing coalition will have to be forged.
Analysts say the poor showing in the state elections will probably have an effect on the government’s ability to push through its budget when it is presented to parliament in a special budget session this month.