State Election Losses Spell Trouble for India’s Ruling Party

Congress has to act quickly if it is to salvage any hopes for 2014's national polls

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Ajay Aggarwal / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit interacting with media persons after her defeat in Delhi Assembly Election on Dec. 8, 2013 in New Delhi, India

India’s ruling Congress Party has suffered a major blow in four key state elections, sending party strategists scrambling ahead of national polls next year. Sunday results show that Congress lost state assembly polls in Delhi, where the party has been in power for the last 15 years, as well as in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Together, the four states comprise some 15% of the nation’s population.

Congress’ drubbing by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sets the stage for a fierce battle between the revived opposition and the party that has governed the world’s largest democracy for nearly a decade. Who will be in the ring for that battle is, however, uncertain. The BJP has experienced a surge since announcing that the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, will be the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 spring election, and many attribute the party’s success in last week’s vote to his aggressive campaigning ahead of the vote.

Congress, on the other hand, has yet to select its own prime ministerial candidate. Political scion and party veep Rahul Gandhi has made stump speeches but failed to win sufficient backing, and the party’s indecision looks typical of the irresolution that voters have groused about over the past two years.

The record turnout of between 70-77% in the four state polls signals a growing demand for change from the electorate, analysts say. That was particularly true in in Delhi, where Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, running for a historic fourth term for Congress, was knocked out not only by the BJP, which won 32 seats, but by the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won 28. Congress took just 8.

In a statement made at party headquarters in Delhi on Nov. 8, according to the Wall Street Journal, Party leader Sonia Gandhi said that the result “calls for deep introspection. We have to understand to look at the any reasons for this defeat.” Rahul Gandhi struck a similar tone. “We have heard what you have said,” he said. “And we are going to do whatever you want us to do to live up to your expectations.”

Sonhi Gandhi has also said that the party would select a PM candidate at an “opportune” time. Whoever it is, Congress will need to act quickly. Six months isn’t long to convince a nation of 1.2 billion of anything, especially when your opponent has a head start.