India's Congress humiliated in anti-graft poll backlash

A man unfurls the party flag as India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s victory in the Delhi state Assembly elections in New Delhi, India, Sunday. -- PHOTO: AP
A man unfurls the party flag as India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s victory in the Delhi state Assembly elections in New Delhi, India, Sunday. -- PHOTO: AP

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A stunning performance by an upstart anti-corruption party helped topple India's ruling Congress in elections to New Delhi's state assembly on Sunday, only months before the country goes to the polls.

Congress, in power at national level for a decade, was also in danger of losing control of three other state assemblies up for grabs in Sunday's vote count, in a devastating blow ahead of next year's general election.

"All I can say is that the people of Delhi have taken a decision which we respect," said Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as it became clear that Congress would come a distant third in Delhi after 15 years in power.

"We will analyse later what went wrong," added Ms Dikshit, who lost her own seat to Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (Common People's Party). Mr Kejriwal, who only started his party a year ago, said his was a "victory of the people".

"I am absolutely confident that finally the country will win, the people will win and democracy will win," added the former civil servant, who has tapped into growing anger over corruption during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's tenure.

Aam Aadmi would even manage to prevent the main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from winning a majority in New Delhi, according to forecasts from the electoral commission.

The BJP had either won or was leading in 32 of the Delhi assembly seats while Aam Aadmi was in line to capture 26 seats. Congress trailed in third with a forecast tally of just nine, down from 43.

Official forecasts based on partial results showed the BJP would record landslide wins in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, although it had only a slender lead over Congress in restive Chhattisgarh.

The elections for the four states have been held at different points over the last month but the counting had been postponed until Sunday.

Votes will be counted in the remote Congress-ruled state of Mizoram on Monday.

Aam Aadmi only fielded candidates in New Delhi but the results will increase expectations that it will run nationwide when the world's largest democracy holds its general election, by next May at the latest.

"We have succeeded in altering the political discourse of the elections," Athishi Marlena, one of Mr Kejriwal's top lieutenants, told the NDTV network.

Triumphant Aam Aadmi supporters at party headquarters waved brooms - the symbol of its pledge to clean up politics.

BJP activists celebrated in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, dancing to the beat of drums, bursting firecrackers and waving the party's lotus symbol.

Human Resources Development Minister Shashi Tharoor acknowledged the results were a wake-up call for Congress but questioned whether the corruption issue would be such a factor in the general election.

"Since we are looking forward to elections in five months' time in the entire country, I think there are legitimate questions whether this appeal can be replicated elsewhere," he said.

The assembly votes mark the last major test before Congress and the BJP, fielding hardliner Narendra Modi as its candidate for the premiership, face off in the general election due by May.

Analyst Amulya Ganguli said the chickens were coming home to roost for Congress after economic growth slowed to around five per cent and following a series of corruption scandals - including events surrounding the chaotic 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

"Had they managed to keep the economy buoyant, then that would have at least been a buffer against the numerous scams during their time," he said.