New Delhi – The ruling Congress Party and its allies weathered a string of corruption scandals to win three major state elections today, ousting communists from two strongholds in the process.
The southern state of Tamil Nadu rejected Congress regional ally for re-election after some of its top officials were implicated in one of the past year’s biggest scandals involving the cut-rate sale of cellphone licenses.
“The message for Congress is very clear and loud, that corruption is indeed a major issue,” political analyst Inder Malhotra said.
“If Congress doesn’t watch out, they will be in very serious trouble” in the next general elections in 2014.
The most-watched race was in India’s fourth most-populous state of West Bengal, where Congress and its ally Trinamool Congress toppled a 34-year communist-led government after an aggressive campaign that hammered the ruling coalition on stagnation, corruption, agricultural malaise and industrial decline.
Wild jubilation has swept the state, with Trinamool supporters blowing conch shells and tossing green powder – the party’s colour – in the air.
Considering the simultaneous defeat of communists in Kerala state, the Bengali verdict appeared to vindicate Congress’s national pro-market policies by the weakening of its most consistent opponent of globalisation and economic reform.
State elections in India are largely fought on local issues, and in many cases Congress plays a minor role in state coalitions.
Opponents had been trying to unseat the Bengali communists since 1977, and Trinamool’s fiery leader Mamata Banerjee said today’s results reflected a prolonged “freedom struggle.”
“We want to dedicate our victory to our people and motherland,” said Banerjee, who is likely to quit as national railways minister to become West Bengal’s chief minister. “We will give good governance and good administration, not autocracy.”
She asked her supporters to abstain from alcohol and victory rallies to help maintain calm in the volatile state. Security was tight to deter any violence by communist supporters upset about losing their source of patronage, though no incidents have yet been reported.
Outgoing Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya conceded defeat, while national communist lawmaker Sitaram Yechury said it was normal for Bengalis to seek change after 34 years and that the party would be back.
The communists now control only the small, northeastern state of Tripura.
Congress comfortably won re-election over a fractured opposition in northeastern Assam, where it has been holding peace talks with secessionist militants that have helped calm decades of violence.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram called the result “spectacular,” while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated both Banerjee and Assam’s incumbent chief minister, Tarun Gogoi.
But in Tamil Nadu, Congress and regional ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were beaten badly, and the DMK leader conceded by resigning as chief minister.
The DMK was implicated in a cellphone licensing scandal that cost the nation an estimated tens of billions of dollars and forced one of its leaders to quit as national telecoms minister in November before being charged with conspiracy and fraud.
Congress has also come under fire for alleged mismanagement and corruption tied to the staging of last year’s Commonwealth Games and to the takeover of valuable Mumbai apartments intended for poor war widows by powerful bureaucrats and politicians’ relatives.
It has even been castigated by the supreme court and pressed to do more on investigating complaints.
“Congress has become very good at spin doctoring,” analyst Malhotra said.
“But the reality is they are protecting people, and whatever action is being taken is being taken by the judiciary.”