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In India state, election mirrors national struggles
Mon Nov 24, 2008 2:10am EST
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By Alistair Scrutton
BHOPAL, India (Reuters) - To grasp the obstacles the ruling Congress party faces in retaining power in India next year, look no further than M.M. Khan.
A Muslim from a slum in Madhya Pradesh state, he should be a stalwart of the left-of-center and secular-slanting government as it battles the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in state polls this month and a general election next year.
But Khan is unsure that was meant to be.
"The BJP's done a great job here," Khan said, referring to the BJP Madhya Pradesh government. "When Congress was here they did nothing. Now we see improvements in electricity, more wells."
The central state of Madhya Pradesh goes to polls on Thursday in one of six state elections testing the political waters for Congress and the BJP.
The battle in one of India's poorest states is a microcosm for many national issues, from party tactics to the growth of caste-based parties upsetting the traditional balance of power.
Stakes are high. For the BJP, Madhya Pradesh accounts for nearly a fifth of their total parliamentary seats. For Congress, it is a chance to reverse a string of state election defeats as inflation and perceived weak leadership alienated voters.
"Now it's time for Congress. Five years for BJP, now five years for Congress," said Ansar Khan, who works for a car rental company in the state capital Bhopal.
Khan's view reflects an anti-incumbent trend in India, and Congress has high hopes of regaining Madhya Pradesh, which had been in the party's hands for decades before a 2003 BJP victory.
The vote is hard to predict. Polls are unreliable and a myriad of castes add to the complexity. But observers say a host of problems have made a Congress victory more difficult.
Congress should have an edge. Five years of BJP rule may have seen some progress, like with roads, but needs remain high in one of India's poorest states.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute placed Madhya Pradesh as India's worst state in terms of hunger and malnutrition, ranked globally between Chad and Ethiopia.
Water in Bhopal is available only every two days. Electricity is intermittent. The state has seen three BJP chief ministers in five years amid party infighting.
But observers say Congress rallies have often seen sparse support. As usual, the party has not named a chief ministerial candidate, meaning there is no political figurehead.
To add to its problems, the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party based on Dalits led by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati, has drawn large crowds and may also rob votes from Congress. Continued...
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