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India's ruling party, Rahul Gandhi face poll tests


Five Indian states go to the polls starting from Saturday, putting the reputation of the beleaguered ruling Congress party to the test, as well as the credibility of its young leader Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi, the prince of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has dominated India for most of its post-independence period, has taken centre stage during campaigning for the polls.

He has criss-crossed the most important election-bound state that is also home to his parliamentary constituency, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and has also swung through neighbouring Uttarakhand and northwestern Punjab.

In each, the 41-year-old leader widely tipped as a future prime minister has done his best to sell the Congress party whose reputation has been battered at the national level by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

If the unmarried heir-apparent can improve on his party's woeful performance in the last UP elections in 2007, he can look forward to a shot of "political viagra," says political analyst Uday Bhaskar.

"Rahul Gandhi is being tested," says the director of the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank. "If he is able to swing UP, he is going to be cheered."

But the Congress party, a national secular force with its roots in the country's independence movement, has seen its dominance country-wide eroded as regional parties come to the fore.

One of them, the Bahujan Samaj Party of mercurial low-caste leader Mayawati, gave an illustration of this in 2007 when she swept to power in UP by exploiting support among the former "Untouchable" or Dalit classes.

What happens in caste-riven UP, where voters tend to vote along religious lines, influences government at the national level. The state will send 80 members to the 552-seat parliament in the next national elections in 2014.

"In all of our past elections, UP exercises a major influence on the formation of the government. It has always cast more excitement than any other state," said K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, chairman of the Centre of Policy Research think-tank.

But the succession of state polls will begin not in UP, where multi-stage voting starts on February 8, but far away in the Indian's neglected northeastern territories that are wedged between Bangladesh, Myanmar and China.

Voters in the impoverished, sometimes violent and highly militarised state of Manipur go to the polls on Saturday, with Congress almost certain to extend its rule after winning all but one election there since 1984.

It is tipped by some commentators to regain power in the key agricultural heartland of Punjab and the mountainous state of Uttarakhand when they follow with elections next Monday. In both, Congress narrowly lost in 2007.

The fifth region in play this year is Goa, the tropical beach state where Congress is historically strong and currently in power in coalition. It holds its vote on March 3.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, a political commentator and editorial consultant with DNA newspaper, expects Congress to win three -- Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand -- and lose the others.

This creditable display will have little to do with the problems of the central government, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the ruling Congress party have been on the defensive for much of the last 18 months.

Corruption scandals, problems in the ruling coalition and a stalled reform agenda have undermined Singh and given impetus to the opposition, but these factors will barely register in the state polls, says Rao.

"People are more concerned about their local electricity supply or roads," he told AFP. "It's possible that the corruption and scams will play a role in the parliamentary elections in 2014."