By BISWAJEET BANERJEE and MUNEEZA NAQVI, Associated Press
LUCKNOW, India (AP) — India's governing Congress party was badly beaten in a key state election Tuesday, a sharp rebuke that could cripple the already embattled national government over the final two years of its term.
With early returns showing Congress coming in fourth place in the Uttar Pradesh polls, party icon Rahul Gandhi admitted defeat. Gandhi, seen as his party's likely next prime ministerial candidate, had put his reputation on the line by campaigning relentlessly across India's most populous state.
"I led this campaign and I was the person in front. The responsibility is mine," Gandhi said, adding that his party had poor organization in the state.
Mayawati, the bottom-caste dalit leader who is the state's incumbent chief minister, also suffered a crushing defeat as the socialist Samajwadi Party's victory was strong enough to allow it to form a government on its own.
"People have risen above caste and religion to vote for the Samajwadi Party and that is why it's clear that we are headed toward a majority," said Akhilesh Yadav, a top party leader, while votes were being counted Tuesday. The party secured 224 of the state's 403 seats and was leading for one more, according to the Election Commission's tally from all but one district declared early Wednesday.
Mayawati's party took a major hit, winning only 79 seats, while the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, took 47 and Congress just 28 — a marginal increase from the 22 it held before the vote.
Mayawati, who uses one name, drew criticism during her 5-year rule for spending a fortune on public parks complete with gigantic statues of herself and other party leaders instead of reforming the health and education systems.
"She did not work the way she should have. The millions that were wasted on the statues, if that had been utilized properly, I think Uttar Pradesh would have benefited greatly," Yadav told New Delhi Television News.
Ajit Kumar Singh, director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies in the state capital, Lucknow, said voters saw the Samajwadi Party as their best chance of ousting their mercurial chief minister.
"People were fed up with the dictatorial attitude of Mayawati," he said.
K.V. Prasad, a New Delhi-based political analyst with The Hindu newspaper, said the verdict showed that the Congress party was out of touch with grass-roots issues.
"It's not enough to go heli-hopping and waving your hands," he said, a reference to Gandhi's crisscrossing the state via helicopter. "The electorate is more aware now."
Prasad said voters knew that only the Samajwadi Party had the organization to realistically defeat Mayawati's government.
Congress didn't fare much better in election results from four other states. While it held onto power in the tiny, insurgency-wracked state of Manipur in the northeast with 42 of the state's 60 seats, it lost control of coastal Goa, with only nine seats to the BJP's 21.
In the state of Punjab, Congress lost to the local Sikh party Shiromani Akali Dal 56-46, with the BJP taking 12. In the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, Congress scraped by with 32 to BJP's 31.
The results in Uttar Pradesh, where Congress leaders had hoped to triple their seat count, are a blow to Gandhi's aspirations to be taken seriously as a national leader.
Gandhi, a parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh, is a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. His mother is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Congress party president; his father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in 1991. The family is not related to independence leader Mohandas Gandhi.
The Congress-led national coalition has been battered by corruption scandals and weakened by growing opposition from rebellious smaller parties within the government that have blocked major new legislation.
Congress had hoped a strong showing would rejuvenate the government and give it leverage to widen the coalition and pressure its wayward allies to fall in line. A poor showing will leave the government limping toward the next election in 2014, even as economic growth slows and analysts say the nation is desperately in need of a transformative reform agenda.
The massive elections in the five states were spread out from late January to March 3 and saw a high voter turnout, with at least 60 percent of the electorate voting in each state.
Naqvi reported from New Delhi.