* Setback may limit government's room to pursue reform
* Congress heading for loss in at least 3 out of 5 states
* Shadow cast over future of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
By John Chalmers
NEW DELHI, March 6 India's Rahul Gandhi
failed spectacularly to deliver a promised comeback for his
Congress party in crucial state elections, casting fresh doubt
on his capacity to become the next member of a storied dynasty
to lead the country.
The Congress party flop in India's most politically vital
state was also a blow to the already-tottering government of
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reducing his scope to re-launch
reforms and reverse a slowdown in economic growth.
"It has been a disaster for the Congress, it's an even
bigger disaster for Rahul Gandhi and the Gandhi family,"
political analyst Amulya Ganguli said as results came in from
Uttar Pradesh and four smaller states that went to the polls.
"They were banking on success in these elections, hoping to
get at least four out of five states. It has gone exactly the
opposite way. It shows that there is no charisma left in the
With the count nearing its conclusion on Tuesday, the
Congress party was trailing in fourth place in the big northern
state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which with 200 million people would
be the world's fifth-most populous country if independent.
It looked set to win about 28 of the state assembly's 403
seats, a marginal improvement on its lacklustre performance
there five years ago and far short of the 100-plus tally it had
boasted Gandhi's tireless election campaigning would deliver.
Congress sought to shield Gandhi from blame, arguing it was
up to local lawmakers to convert his electioneering into
assembly seats. But later, dressed in a long white Indian shirt
and smiling in front of a crush of reporters outside the New
Delhi residence of his mother, Sonia, Gandhi was humble.
"I accept responsibility for the fact that we did not
perform well. After all, I was the main campaigner ... the
Congress party fought well, but the result is not good," the
41-year-old Gandhi said.
After speaking to reporters, he walked back to his sister,
Priyanka, who put an arm around his shoulders.
There was also mostly disappointing news for Congress from
other states that went to the polls over the past month. It was
defeated in Punjab and Goa, and neck-and-neck with a rival in
Uttarakhand, where counting was still going on. In a small
consolation, it won in the far-flung border state of Manipur.
Scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for
most of its 65 years of independence, Gandhi campaigned hard to
revive his party in Uttar Pradesh, where it has not ruled for 22
years. He attended more than 200 rallies, slept in villagers'
huts and even grew a beard that gave him a more rugged look.
His performance was widely seen as a test of his fitness to
take the reins of the party from his ailing Italian-born mother
and eventually to become prime minister if Congress and its
allies retain power in national elections due in 2014.
However, the runaway winner in Uttar Pradesh was the
socialist Samajwadi Party, which means former wrestler Mulayam
Singh Yadav will become chief minister for a fourth term since
1989, ousting the flamboyant lower-caste leader Mayawati.
Many remember Yadav for presiding over a surge in gang
violence in one of India's most feudal and corrupt states, with
his party once counting a "bandit queen" among its lawmakers.
REFORM AGENDA IN DOUBT
However, the Samajwadi Party's image was invigorated by the
campaigning of Yadav's fresh-faced son, Akhilesh, who speaks
English as well as Hindi, has a postgraduate degree from Sydney
and won the state's voters with promises of development.
"Two youthful leaders, both belonging to political families,
fighting for their political futures," Oxus Investments Chairman
Surjit Bhalla said in a newspaper column, predicting the
possible "end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Indian politics."
"In one corner, Akhilesh Yadav, sounding modern and
guaranteeing free computers to the young generation. In another
corner, Rahul Gandhi, heir to a 127-year-old heritage, baldly
stating that the UP electorate was poor, starving, shirtless,
uneducated and without jobs ... The choice is clear."
The party's setbacks may make it harder for Singh's
coalition government to pursue reforms that could shore up the
country's economic growth, which has slipped below 7 percent.
Battered by a string of corruption scandals and inflation,
Singh last year was forced to shelve a flagship reform to open
the supermarket sector to foreign direct investment by global
retailers such as Wal-Mart, and bills on mining and land
acquisition are stuck in the policy queue.
"The results will not provide the political space for the
government or the confidence to carry through unpopular
reforms," Goldman Sachs said in a note. "We think the best that
can be hoped for is muddle-through policies by the government."