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A Comeback for Congress

The unexpected defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in three state elections this year partly reflects the failure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's national government to deliver on its economic promises. But it also suggests that the country's main opposition party will be highly competitive in the 2019 general election.

NEW DELHI – The stunning victory this month of the opposition Indian National Congress in three elections to state assemblies – the local “parliaments” that decide who governs federal India’s 29 provincial units – is a major blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The elections’ outcome has dramatically upended Modi supporters’ complacent prediction that he would be easily re-elected to a second five-year term in the next general election, due before May 2019.

The defeat of BJP governments in the Hindi states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh is all the more significant because the region is a bastion of support for the party. The results reflect mounting disillusionment with the performance of the BJP both in New Delhi and in the states they rule, as well as the emergence of a previously enfeebled Congress party as a credible alternative.

A major reason for the BJP’s poor showing is its neglect of the agriculture sector, on which over 60% of Indians still depend for their livelihood. With harvest failures, failed crop-insurance schemes that benefited insurers rather than indebted farmers, and inadequate attention to irrigation, credit, price-support, and other needed inputs, farmer suicides have risen to record levels. Rural distress has been a common factor across most of India, and much of the blame for it inevitably focuses on the failure of the central and state governments to deal with it. Just before the state elections, tens of thousands of farmers from around the country marched on the national capital, New Delhi, demanding that their grievances be addressed.

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