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Indian heartland votes give BJP boon over Congress

NEW DELHI India’s Bharatiya Janata Party appeared to make strong political gains in four heartland states Sunday, as preliminary results showed the ruling Congress party sidelined in a race seen as a test before next year’s general election.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has waged a fierce campaign fronted by its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has charmed businesses but worried critics that his rise could worsen sectarian tensions.
Preliminary results showed BJP trouncing Congress in the Indian capital, northwest Rajasthan and landlocked Madhya Pradesh. The race for central Chhattisgarh was neck-and-neck.
Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala called the results “disappointing” but conceded “we have lost” in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Modi offered congratulations by Twitter to Madhya Pradesh’s incumbent chief minister “for BJP’s wonderful performance,” and to the party in Rajasthan for “the historic victory.”
The elections were seen as an important gauge of voter sentiment in this secular democracy of 1.2 billion, where there are no reliable opinion polls conducted nationwide.
TV news channels gave breathless coverage of the vote count, offering a taste of the nationwide contest to come next year. Ballots from a fifth state that voted, Mizoram in the northeast, will be counted Monday.
Overall, Congress was seen to lose ground due to sustained national focus on widespread graft, with several members from the party, as well as the BJP, embroiled in corruption scandals while bribery remains an everyday feature for citizens trying to do routine tasks like get a marriage license or secure a child’s place in school.
Congress has also taken a beating over stalled economic reforms and the soaring costs of living, exacerbated by the slowdown in economic growth from averages above 8 percent for five years up to 2011 to below 5 percent today.
In the race for the 70-member Delhi Assembly, Congress’ Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was denied a fourth consecutive term as Delhi’s top elected official. Dikshit, 76, has presided over the city as it burgeoned into a megapolis of nearly 17 million people, many of them impoverished migrants in search of jobs.
A new political party called Aam Aadmi Party — or Common Man’s Party — played spoiler in the race and pushed Congress into third place, according to early results. The debutant party’s volunteers had campaigned throughout Delhi’s poorest neighborhoods ahead of the polls. The group, led by former tax official Arvind Kejriwal, hopes next to campaign nationally.
“It is very much fabulous. For the first time we are contesting elections, seven months of hard work,” said party member Balaji, a 26-year-old software engineer from the southern tech city of Bangalore who goes by one name.
“We can give this country, this state, a very good opposition.”
It appeared to be a stunning fall for Congress, which took 43 seats in the last Delhi elections, and experts partly blamed anger over the deadly gang rape of a student on a Delhi bus last December and a corruption scandal involving the 2010 Commonweath Games.
“We accept our defeat and we will analyze what went wrong,” Dikshit told reporters after resigning as chief minister.
“We respect what the people of Delhi have decided and thank them for supporting us for last 15 years.”
Both the AAP and BJP capitalized on Congress’ battered reputation.
For several years after it won control of the national government in 2004, technocrat Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was credited with leading India to breakneck growth and economic reforms that enticed foreign investment. But as the economy slowed and corruption scandals came to light, Congress found itself wrangling with regional coalition partners and unable to push through further reforms.
Meanwhile the BJP’s Modi, who has served three terms as Gujarat’s leader, is credited with turning his western state into an industrial haven. India’s benchmark Sensex rose by 1.4 percent in the two days after the election as markets cheered early signs of a strong showing by BJP.
Modi has been a polarizing figure, however, with critics questioning whether he can truly be a secular leader over India’s cacophony of cultures defined by caste, clan, tribe or religion, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.
For years, Modi has dodged allegations that he and his Hindu fundamentalist party colleagues looked the other way and even encouraged marauding mobs of Hindus as they killed and burned their way through Muslim neighborhoods in Gujarat in 2002, leaving more than 1,100 people dead in one of India’s worst outbursts of communal violence.
No evidence directly links Modi to the violence, and he says he has no responsibility for the killings.
The Supreme Court criticized his government, however, for failing to prosecute Hindu rioters who justified the rampage as revenge for a train fire that killed 60 Hindus.
An independent probe in 2006 determined the fire was an accident, but a 2008 state government commission said it was planned by Muslims.