Hindu nationalists lose in India state voting Spiraling vegetable prices appear to have cost votes


NEW DELHI, India -- As vote tallies piled up yesterday in a series of important state elections, the humiliating defeat of the Hindu nationalists and the stunning resurrection of India's once-dominant Congress Party became ever more starkly apparent.

Voters outraged by the spiraling prices of onions, tomatoes and potatoes -- essentials of the Indian diet -- swept the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party from office by landslide margins where it had been deeply entrenched. The party lost in Delhi, the district that includes the nation's capital, and in the Hindi heartland state of Rajasthan.

Even more surprising in a year marked by an anti-incumbent mood among voters, the Congress Party managed to hold firmly to power in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, the country's largest. Political analysts said it was likely that voters in the state blamed the national government, led by the Hindu nationalists, for price increases, not the state government.

Two regional parties beat out Congress in the small northeastern state of Mizoram, the other state where elections were held, but its results were not considered important to national politics.

While the Hindu nationalists alienated leaders from around the world in May when the government conducted secret underground nuclear tests, polls indicated that it was rising vegetable prices that cost them dearly with voters at home.

The repudiation of the Hindu nationalists in the state elections, which were held Wednesday and the votes counted over the weekend, will further undermine the 18-party coalition government they have led nationally since March.

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi said the results are a gain, but she told a television reporter that she was in no rush to topple the Hindu-nationalist-led coalition. Congress has only 141 of the 272 votes it would need to form a clear majority in Parliament.

Gandhi is the unlikely inheritor of the Congress Party mantle. An Italian-born Roman Catholic in majority-Hindu India, she is the surviving member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Her husband's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister. Her mother-in-law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, died in her arms after being shot by Sikh bodyguards. And her husband, Rajiv, was assassinated in 1991 by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber while he was campaigning to win back the post of prime minister.

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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