NEW DELHI – The ruling Congress party and its allies weathered a string of corruption scandals to win three major state elections Friday — ousting Communists from two strongholds in the process — but voters still showed they would punish for graft.
The southern state of Tamil Nadu rejected Congress' regional ally for re-election after some of its top officials were implicated in one of the past year's biggest scandals involving the cut-rate sale of cell phone licenses.
"The message for Congress is very clear and loud, that corruption is indeed a major issue," political analyst Inder Malhotra said. "If Congress doesn't watch out, they will be in very serious trouble" in the next general elections in 2014.
The most-watched race was in India's fourth most-populous state of West Bengal, where Congress and its ally Trinamool Congress toppled a 34-year Communist-led government after an aggressive campaign that hammered the leftist coalition on stagnation, corruption, agricultural malaise and industrial decline.
Wild jubilation swept the state Friday, with Trinamool supporters blowing conch shells and tossing green powder in the air — the party's color.
Considering the simultaneous defeat of Communists in Kerala state, the Bengali verdict appeared to vindicate Congress' national pro-market policies by the weakening its most consistent opponent of globalization and economic reform.
But Kerala's race was tight, and Bengal's more a protest against Communist corruption and ineffectiveness during more than three decades of entrenched power. State elections in India are largely fought on local issues, and in many cases Congress plays a junior role in state coalitions.
Opponents had been trying to unseat the Bengali Communists since 1977, and Trinamool's fiery leader Mamata Banerjee said Friday's results reflected a prolonged "freedom struggle."
"We want to dedicate our victory to our people and motherland," said Banerjee, who is likely to quit as national railways minister to become West Bengal's chief minister. "We will give good governance and good administration, not autocracy."
She asked her supporters to abstain from alcohol and victory rallies to help maintain calm in the volatile state. Security was tight to deter any violence by Communist supporters upset about losing their source of patronage, though no incidents were reported by Friday evening.
Outgoing Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya conceded defeat, while national Communist lawmaker Sitaram Yechury said it was normal for Bengalis to seek change after 34 years and that the party would be back.
Yechury also played down the loss of Kerala by saying the narrow margin showed it was "one of the closest-fought elections" in the southern state's history.
Analysts said the party must now rethink its policies and inject new blood into its aging leadership if it wants a fighting change in future polls. The Communists now control only the small, northeastern state of Tripura.
Congress comfortably won re-election over a fractured opposition in northeastern Assam, where it has been holding peace talks with secessionist militants that have helped calm decades of violence.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram called the result "spectacular," while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated both Banerjee and Assam's incumbent chief minister, Tarun Gogoi.
"Voters have reaffirmed their faith in the Congress government," after its efforts to each out to the militants, Gogoi said.
But in Tamil Nadu, Congress and regional ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were beaten badly, and the DMK leader conceded by resigning as chief minister. The DMK was deeply implicated in a cell-phone licensing scandal that cost the nation an estimated tens of billions of dollars and forced one of its leaders to quit as national telecoms minister in November before being charged with conspiracy and fraud.
The tiny neighboring state of Pondicherry, also called Puducherry, voted along with Tamil Nadu against the Congress bloc.
The leader of Tamil Nadu's winning party thanked voters for the "victory for democracy."
People were "just waiting for a chance to vent their anger" against the DMK, Jayaram Jayalalitha said.
But the DMK's loss could be a blessing in disguise for Congress should it be seeking to cut ties with a scandal-plagued partner, though it also would add to public demand for good governance and accountability.
Congress has also come under fire for alleged mismanagement and corruption tied to the staging of last year's Commonwealth Games and to the takeover of valuable Mumbai apartments intended for poor war widows by powerful bureaucrats and politicians' relatives. It has even been castigated by the Supreme Court and pressed to do more on investigating complaints.
"Congress has become very good at spin doctoring," analyst Malhotra said. "But the reality is they are protecting people, and whatever action is being taken is being taken by the judiciary."
Associated Press writer Manik Banerjee contributed to this report from Kolkata.