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India's ruling Congress party suffers loss in key vote

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
updated 2:54 PM EST, Wed March 7, 2012
India's Congress party president Sonia Gandhi speaks after defeat in local elections.
India's Congress party president Sonia Gandhi speaks after defeat in local elections.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The elections are considered a litmus test for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government
  • Voters back the regional Samajwadi Party, giving it a decisive majority of 224 seats
  • Results show Congress party winning in less than 30 of the 403 boroughs

New Delhi (CNN) -- India's ruling Congress party has suffered a crushing defeat in local elections that are considered a litmus test for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.

The count from multiphased polling in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, showed the Congress party winning in less than 30 of the 403 boroughs.

Voters, instead, backed the regional Samajwadi Party, giving it a decisive majority of 224 seats to rule the province.

Led by politician, Akhilesh Yadav, 38, the Samajwadi Party unseated powerful low-caste chief minister Mayawati, who goes by one name.

Yadav is son of Uttar Pradesh's veteran leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former state chief and a former wrestler. His party is believed to have a strong base among Hindu middle castes and Muslims.

The tally for the Congress party count fell far short of its target, notching a fourth place finish in statewide voting.

"Anti Congress," said a bold page-one headline on the "Indian Express" newspaper.

The outcome is a personal setback for star campaigner Rahul Gandhi, who struggled hard to revive the Congress party.

"This is one of my defeats and I take it in my stride," said the 41-year old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, billed by some as a future prime minister.

Gandhi, a federal lawmaker from Uttar Pradesh, was not a candidate, but led a tireless campaign in the provincial elections.

His party leads the United Progressive Alliance government at the national level.

"The Congress (party) needs to wake up and smell the anti-incumbency that's rising nationally against the UPA government, fueled by rising prices, poor economic management and corruption," the Times of India wrote in an editorial.

In the run-up to polling, the Congress-led federal government, reeling from a raft of multibillion-dollar corruption scandals, approved job quotas for minority groups in a move widely perceived as an attempt to woo the Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh -- which makes up an estimated 18% of the state's population, according to official figures.

Though the state is almost paralyzed by widespread poverty and poor health care, political observers say caste and religion still take precedence over development in local politics.

"Religion and caste factor in right from the selection of candidates by almost all political parties. Candidates are chosen on the basis of the population constitution of constituencies," said political analyst J.P. Shukla.

The ousted leader, Mayawati, became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2007 after leading her Bahujan Samaj Party to an overwhelming victory in this state of more than 200 million people.

An icon of the Dalits, once known as "the untouchables" and the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system, the 56-year-old has been widely criticized for her alleged extravagance while heading one of India's poorest parts.

Yet Mayawati's supporters -- not just Dalits -- praised her for bringing about what they describe as a "qualitative difference" to the lives of a rainbow of castes during her tenure.

Meantime, Congress suffered a major setback in other states. It failed in Punjab and Goa while securing a victory by a whisker -- but without a clear majority -- in the mountainous Uttarakhand state.

An influential local leader, Okram Ibobi Singh, was credited for retaining power for the Congress party in the far-flung, insurgency-wracked Manipur province.

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