Nationalists claim victory in Indian poll

By Naseem Chand, AFP

BANGALORE — India’s opposition Hindu nationalists claimed victory Sunday in provincial polls in southern Karnataka state, dealing a huge blow to the ruling Congress party ahead of next year’s national polls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won 110 seats but were three short of a simple majority in the 225-member state legislature, election commission officials said.

Sonia Gandhi’s Congress party, which heads the national government in New Delhi and is facing a backlash over surging prices, had 80 seats, a commission spokesman said.

Independents and regional parties accounted for the remaining 34 seats.

The BJP’s showing in Karnataka, a state of 60 million people and home to India’s “Silicon Valley,” will likely boost its national profile. The party rules seven of India’s 29 states and is part of ruling coalitions in five others.

If the BJP musters a majority in the state assembly, it would be the first time the party will rule a state outright in south India.

BJP leaders in the state were upbeat. Chief ministerial candidate B. S. Yeddiyurappa told reporters in Bangalore that his party would “stake claim to form the next government.”

State BJP chief Sadananda Gowda added he was confident of winning over some independent legislators to get the numbers needed to form a government.

Meanwhile, Karnataka state Congress chief and former chief minister, S.M. Krishna, conceded defeat, telling reporters: “It is too early to say what factors led to our defeat.

“Maybe our campaign strategy and selection of candidates were not up to the mark.”

In New Delhi, the BJP’s national president, Rajnath Singh, told reporters that falling short “one or two seats” of a majority would not “deter the BJP from forming the next government” in Karnataka.

Sunday’s “result shows that BJP’s victory will continue right up to the general elections” in 2009, Singh said, a view echoed by his party’s prime ministerial candidate, Lal Krishna Advani.

“This geographical expansion of the BJP and the simultaneous shrinkage of the Congress party almost all over the country, shows the shape of things to come,” Advani told reporters in New Delhi.

“The (Congress) government’s utter failure to control the prices of essential commodities, its soft … policy on terrorism and its insensitivity towards the plight of farmers, have angered the common people all over the country,” he added.

Karnataka elected a hung assembly in 2004, leading to 40 months of political instability under short-lived coalitions.

The BJP governed Karnataka for a week in November before regional partner party, Janata Dal (Secular), forced an early ballot by withdrawing support.

Karnataka is the first of a number of states to choose governments ahead of national parliamentary elections due before May 2009.

Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, led Congress to national power in 2004 on a pro-poor ticket.

But the party is now under attack from its allies and the opposition for failing to control inflation that has risen to a four-year high of 7.61 percent, fuelled by rising food and energy costs.