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State polls offer litmus test for Indian Govt

INDIA: India kicks off a round of crucial state polls today, seen as a mini-referendum on the ruling Congress Party ahead of a general election expected in early 2009.

Six states will vote before the end of the year against a backdrop of rising food prices and growing concerns over the impact of the global financial crisis on India’s economy.

Maoist rebel-hit Chattisgarh will hold its two-part assembly polls starting Friday, followed by central Madhya Pradesh, the capital Delhi, tiny Mizoram in the northeast and the western desert state of Rajasthan.

The insurgency-affected region of Jammu and Kashmir will vote in a seven-part election starting on Monday that is likely to see low turnout due to a boycott called by separatist leaders opposed to Indian rule.

With the exception of Kashmir and remote Mizoram, the ballots are being watched as a litmus test of the popularity of the Congress-led government which has to call a general election by May 2009 at the latest.

The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governs in three of the states voting, but analysts say anti-incumbency sentiment may be offset by anger with the federal government over double-digit inflation.

“The Congress has a great disadvantage,” said political analyst Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “Everybody is looking at Congress as responsible for the price rises.” Other political experts agreed inflation was uppermost in voters’ minds.

“Many of these are states with large numbers of poor people. It will be a very major issue,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

“It is a millstone around the neck for the Congress.”

India has also started to feel the pinch from the global financial crisis, with exports and manufacturing slowing and GDP growth forecasts cut as a result and job losses expected.

But Congress officials insist that the country’s economic fundamentals are strong and the global crisis holds little sway in domestic electoral politics. “There is concern at the economic meltdown but the concern is more on the impact it may have on macroeconomic indicators. It is not so much of a concern from an electoral point of view,” party spokesman Manish Tewari told AFP.

“Inflation has moderated except for a little spike last week.

Food inflation and commodity inflation are coming down. From our perspective the situation looks fairly good.”

While the state polls will give some indication of the national electoral mood, some political analysts warned against reading too much into the results.

New Delhi, Thursday, AFP

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