Opposition win in south augurs ill for Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
The euphoria at the party headquarters in New Delhi was noisy and prolonged. As leaders of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party handed around sweetmeats, it was as if the faithful were emerging from a long, cold hibernation into bright spring sunshine.
After a resounding defeat in the general election four years ago by the Congress party, the Hindu-nationalist BJP had been mired in irrelevance and aimlessness.
Its victory in Sunday's election in the southern state of Karnataka marked a watershed. Known as a party of the Hindi heartland in the north, the BJP had failed to become a force in southern India. It had never before been in a position to form a state government on its own and critics said the BJP could hardly call itself a national party.
Its victory in Karnataka, where it won 110 of 224 seats, marks a significant shift and puts the BJP on the same level as the centre-left Congress - a national party with a presence in most parts of India.
'We won because we projected a local leader for the chief minister's job, we followed a clear-cut strategy and we focused on the issues that mattered to voters - power for farmers, inflation, and cheap rice for the poor,' said BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley, who masterminded the election campaign. 'We've opened the gateway to the south.'
The election win was better than many analysts had expected.
'It's a milestone for a party that had been stuck with the tag of being a north Indian party,' said analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
The victory was a much-needed morale boost to party workers and to BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, who has been criticised in some BJP quarters for insipid leadership. Doubts had surfaced on whether Mr Advani could lead the party back to power.
'This election is a sign that we are back in the reckoning for the general election a few months away. It shows that the BJP is expanding and the Congress is shrinking,' said BJP national president Rajnath Singh.
While the win has given the BJP momentum, it is difficult to extrapolate this into a wider trend towards the party.
Each Indian state is distinct, with its own castes, issues and traditions. The factors that helped the BJP win in Karnataka do not necessarily exist in other southern states.
What is of note, however, is the timing of the victory. It suggests that the Congress-led government is out of touch with the popular mood and failing to address voter concerns, such as inflation that is running at a three-year high of 8 per cent.
And even though Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the heir apparent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, campaigned in Karnataka, it did not help.
One of its mistakes was the failure to project a local leader, highlighting the party's dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
'By jealously guarding the dynasty's pre-eminence, the party has always stopped a second rung of local leaders coming up,' said analyst Inder Malhotra.
The BJP's success augurs ill for Mrs Gandhi. Out of the 21 states that have gone to the polls since her government took over in 2004, the Congress has won only eight.
For the Congress, the Gandhi charisma is always the trump card, guaranteed to win power. The problem is that if it is played too often, even the trump card can fail.
India's main opposition BJP has seized control of the state of Karnataka from the Congress party
The number of BJP-ruled Indian states: 7