LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Election officials counted votes Tuesday in crucial polls in five Indian states that could provide a boost for the ruling Congress party's national coalition, or cripple it for the last two years of its term.
The most critical results are expected from the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where Rahul Gandhi has put his reputation on the line for a strong Congress party showing. Gandhi, touted as Congress' next prime ministerial candidate, campaigned relentlessly for months to oust the government of Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents bottom caste dalits.
If Congress doesn't significantly build on the paltry 22 seats it controls in the 403-strong state assembly, it would be a devastating blow to Gandhi's aspirations to be taken seriously as a national leader.
Gandhi, who is a parliamentarian from Uttar Pradesh, is a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. His mother is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Congress party president; his father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in 1991. The family is not related to independence leader Mohandas Gandhi.
The other elections are in the northern states of Punjab and Uttarakhand, the insurgency-wracked northeastern state of Manipur, and western coastal Goa. Manipur and Goa are ruled by Congress, while Punjab and Uttarakhand are ruled by opposition parties.
The massive elections in the five states were spread out across seven phases, from late January to March 3, and saw a high voter turnout, with at least 60 percent of the electorate voting in each state.
Results are expected to start trickling in midday Tuesday.
The Congress-led national coalition has been battered by corruption scandals and weakened by growing opposition from rebellious smaller parties within the government that have blocked major new legislation.
A strong Congress showing could rejuvenate the government and give it leverage to widen the coalition and pressure its wayward allies to fall in line. A poor showing would leave government limping toward the next election in 2014, even as economic growth slows and analysts say the nation is desperately in need of a transformative reform agenda.
Exit polls showed a likely rebuke to the five-year rule of Mayawati in the bitterly poor state of Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati, who uses one name, had drawn criticism for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on public parks complete with gigantic statues of herself and other leaders of her party instead of trying to reform the health care and education systems.
Even in its most optimistic calculations, Congress was unlikely to win enough seats to take control of the state. However, a strong showing would position it to be a kingmaker in the government.