India's opposition aims to ride momentum for 2014 after big state wins
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - - India's Hindu nationalist opposition party vowed on Monday to seize the momentum from a string of big state poll victories and smooth the tough job of broadening its appeal beyond traditional northern strongholds in time for a national election next year.
A group led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aims to tap into a wave of anger against the ruling Congress, a leader said, after India's grand old party lost vote counts on Sunday in four of five states that have held elections over the past month.
The Congress was ahead only in the tiny state of Mizoram in India's remote northeast, having lost in the big heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, besides the national capital, Delhi.
"There is no question there is an anti-Congress wave gathering momentum," said senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley. "And the biggest gainer will be the BJP, as the largest opposition party."
The national election is due to be held by May and opinion polls over the past year have suggested that while the BJP may emerge as the single largest group, it will fall short of the simple majority it requires to rule.
Despite several attempts to build up its presence in southern and eastern India, the opposition group remains a dominant force only in the northern belt where the most recent elections were held.
Over the next couple of months, the BJP, led by prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, will be looking to bolster its strength in the key southern state of Karnataka, said a party official on the campaign panel.
Indian shares rose to a record high and the rupee hit a four-month high as the BJP, seen as far more business-friendly than the center-left Congress, swept into power in the central states of Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and the western desert state of Rajasthan.
The benchmark BSE index rose more than 2 percent to surpass its previous all-time peak hit on November 3, capping a remarkable turnaround from a few months ago, when the country was gripped by its worst market crisis since 1991.
In Delhi the BJP emerged as the single largest group, its march to absolute majority stopped by a one-year-old anti-corruption party that successfully wooed voters with its promise to clean up governance.
The success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man's Party, in Delhi showed the split nature of Indian politics where voters, an overwhelming majority of whom are young, are seeking an alternative to the big two parties, Bank of America Merril Lynch wrote in a research note.
"This is a reminder that we will still see a coalition Government in 2014 where regional parties will be crucial," it added.
In the first election it has contested, the Aam Aadmi party, which is about a year old, won as much as 40 percent of the seats up for grabs, compared to around 45 percent by the BJP.
Worryingly for the Congress, the state elections showed that its welfare programs, including a $21-billion food security plan for the poor and a jobs guarantee program, were not enough to retain even its core supporters.
Soon after the election results on Sunday, Congress leader and potential candidate for prime minister Rahul Gandhi said he had heard the message from voters and vowed to transform the 128-year-old party.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez)