May 11, 2006

Indian communists lead, Congress struggles in polls

By Y.P. Rajesh

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian communists were set to sweep
two out of five state assembly elections as votes were counted
on Thursday, with the ruling Congress party struggling in its
biggest electoral test since coming to power two years ago.

The state vote, however, is not being seen as a referendum
on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's two years in power as
regional issues dominated campaigns in all states.

The results are not expected to drastically change power
equations at the center where the communists support the
Congress-led coalition government.

But some analysts say a strong showing by the leftists
could see them exerting more influence in New Delhi over
foreign and economic policies.

"Logically speaking, the outcome of state elections should
not have any serious implications for the federal government or
for economic reforms," said T.K. Bhaumik, chief economist at
Reliance Industries Ltd.

"Nobody had any doubts about the communists doing well in
West Bengal and Kerala. It is not a deviation from the trend."

Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of Congress, was
ahead of her nearest rival in a parliamentary by-election in
Rae Bareli in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Gandhi is seeking re-election after she quit in March. The
opposition had accused her of violating the constitution by
being an MP as well as head of the National Advisory Council.
She is expected to win easily.

The communists were on their way to retaining power in the
eastern state of West Bengal, a stronghold for three decades,
and wresting control of the southern coastal state of Kerala
from Congress, TV stations showed.

Congress was locked in a close contest to retain power in
the troubled northeastern state of Assam while its ally, the
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, was set to win the southern state of
Tamil Nadu.

The tiny southern state of Pondicherry offered some
consolation to Congress where it was set to retain power.

The trends were largely as forecast by pre-poll surveys and
exit polls.


Congress officials put up a brave face as counting of the
electronic ballots made fast progress and the trends poured
into New Delhi.

"In the game of governance, the communists will have to
open the gates. They will learn the rules of the game and I am
sure they will open up to economic policies," said Tom
Vadakkan, a Congress spokesman.

Communist party workers had already begun celebrations
across West Bengal.

Some activists hosted feasts in front of huge TV screens
which showed live election results while others flocked vote
counting centers and applied vermilion to each other's

The leftists have been in power there for 29 consecutive
years, giving them the longest-serving elected communist
government in the world.

Although the communists traditionally focused on land
reform and empowering poor peasants, they changed tack over the
past five years and actively wooed private capital and
investment, earning the goodwill of urban voters as well.

"We had the people's complete trust and we knew we would
win by a huge margin," said Biman Bose, the West Bengal
secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The elections were held over five stages between April 3
and May 8. More than 130 million voters were eligible to cast
ballots, more than the total registered electorate in Russia.

(Additional reporting by Palash Kumar, Surojit Gupta and
Meenakshi Ray in NEW DELHI and Bappa Majumdar in KOLKATA)