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India’s Democratic Tempest

NEW DELHI – April might be the cruelest month, but, for India’s major political parties this year, March was fairly brutal. On March 6, following an American-style “Super Tuesday” of its own, India announced the results of five state assembly elections, which confounded pollsters, surprised pundits, and shook a complacent political establishment.

Nothing went according to script. The Congress party was expected to come to power in Punjab, where chronic “anti-incumbency” has traditionally precluded the re-election of any state government. Instead, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal won convincingly. By contrast, in the northeastern state of Manipur, Congress was expected to yield ground to critics of its long-serving chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, who instead pulled off an overwhelming victory.

In the tourist paradise of Goa, the Congress government expected to be re-elected, but was trounced by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Meanwhile, the two parties found themselves neck-and-neck in the hill state of Uttarakhand, with neither claiming a majority, though Congress had been heavily favored in the polls.

But the greatest surprise was in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh (with a population of 200 million), where 402 legislators were elected to its massive state assembly. The incumbent chief minister, Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won an absolute majority last time by forging a “rainbow coalition” composed of her Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) constituency and upper castes, was summarily ousted. Neither of the national parties, however, benefited from the BSP’s demise. Congress limped to the finish line with just 27 seats, and the BJP fared little better. Instead, a local socialist group, the Samajwadi Party, claimed a convincing 221 seats.