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India premier's party gets unexpected boost

December 09, 2008|Henry Chu | Chu is a Times staff writer.

NEW DELHI — Surprising bookmakers and analysts alike, the party of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh performed strongly in state election results Monday, despite a decelerating economy and deep public outrage after last month's bloody terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Singh's Congress Party, which many observers expected to be trounced by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, won three of five state polls, including symbolically rich Delhi, home to the federal capital. The remaining two states went to the Hindu nationalist BJP.

The results are an immediate shot in the arm for India's oldest political party, which had been criticized over security and intelligence failures surrounding the Mumbai attacks. Although balloting in the elections took place on various dates over the last 3 1/2 weeks, Congress won all three states where votes were cast after the deadly 60-hour rampage.

That defied the many pundits who predicted voters would punish the party for its self-acknowledged security lapses concerning the attacks by militants on luxury hotels and other crowded sites that left more than 170 people dead.

Particularly gratifying for Congress is its convincing win in Delhi, the closest correlate to Mumbai in terms of its strong corps of urban middle-class voters. Those city dwellers found the attacks on icons of Indian affluence especially shocking, and many have bitterly denounced Singh's government for failing to protect its citizens.

The other states where Congress won, Rajasthan in the west and Mizoram in the east, are primarily rural.

"Congress is going to come out looking pretty. It never expected to win Delhi," said Subhash Agrawal, editor of India Focus, a political newsletter. "People in Delhi are from all over the country; they've traveled to other parts of the world; they're middle-class. If the Mumbai attacks were going to have any [political] implications, it would have been in Delhi."

Instead, voters who weren't thrilled about Congress may have been put off even more by the BJP and its attempt to make political hay out of the attacks, which Indian officials have blamed on Islamic militants from Pakistan.

The BJP took out front-page newspaper ads branding the government as incompetent on public security and sent Narendra Modi, a particularly controversial party leader, to Mumbai while the attacks were still underway. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state, is widely held to have allowed or even encouraged a pogrom in 2002 in which as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed, some by being set ablaze in the streets.

"The BJP was looking very opportunistic, very jingoistic," Agrawal said. "The feedback I was getting from my friends was what an opportunistic sham" Modi's visit was.

The BJP did, however, win in the central states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

Although the results provide a boost to the Congress Party, it is unclear what influence they will have on its chances in the national election India must hold by May.

By then, the attacks in Mumbai will have faded somewhat from the public mind. Bread-and-butter issues such as rising prices may predominate and work against Singh, an economist who built his reputation on helping to engineer India's once explosive but now slowing economic growth.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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