MUMBAI — The governing Indian National Congress Party and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty suffered a defeat Tuesday in a pivotal election in the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, calling into question their political mandate as the party and the family struggle to advance their agenda in the capital.
Political analysts said the results in Uttar Pradesh and the four other states holding contests, just two years before national elections, will make it more difficult for Indian policymakers to rally together to bolster a slowing economy and improve the performance of a government that has been under attack for corruption scandals and slow decision making.
Instead, the outcome suggested that Indian politics probably will remain deeply divided along regional lines for the foreseeable future. Neither of the two large national parties - the Congress nor the opposition Bharatiya Janata - appeared to have won a clear mandate Tuesday. Voters, especially in big states, voted in far bigger numbers for regional parties that they thought would look after their interests better than parties run from New Delhi.
In Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 200 million, the regional Samajwadi Party was on track to win a majority in the Legislature, dealing a stunning defeat to the incumbent party, another regional group led by a lower-caste politician, Mayawati, who was once seen as a potential prime minister and who uses only one name. The other big loser was Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has governed India through most of its independence. Gandhi had staked significant political capital on reviving the party in the state, which was a stronghold of the Congress Party until the early 1990s.
“For the last year or so, the central government has been pretty beleaguered in terms of its authority and its ability to negotiate all kinds of things,’’ said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Those things in the short run have gotten a little harder because it does not carry political authority.’’
Political analysts said the Congress Party’s poor showing in Uttar Pradesh raised doubts about its ability to win reelection at the federal level in 2014, as well as Gandhi’s prospects as a future prime minister. In New Delhi, Congress governs with the support of several regional parties, at least one of which has publicly threatened to withdraw its support over policy differences.
“Congress needs more coalition partners to retain power in 2014,’’ said C.P. Bhambhri, a professor and the former dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “It will be difficult for Congress to repeat the 2009 election performance.’’
Perhaps the only consolation for the Congress Party is that Bharatiya Janata, or BJP, also performed poorly in state elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh, where it was running a distant third, though ahead of Congress.
“It’s clearly a bad election for the Congress,’’ said Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University.