India nationalists seen gaining ground in state polls

NEW DELHI - India's Hindu nationalist opposition could win in four state elections Sunday, getting a powerful boost ahead of national polls and dealing a big blow to the ruling Congress party, exit surveys suggest.

The assembly votes mark the last major test before the graft-tainted Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fielding hardline Hindu leader Narendra Modi as premier, face off in general elections due by May.

A victory for the party in the four states would "reinforce the BJP's position as odds-on favourite to lead a coalition government" nationally and be a "litmus test" of Modi's popularity, David Sloan, Asia director at Eurasia Group research house, said.

Officials will tally Sunday the ballots cast in the elections held in recent weeks in New Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with results due later in the day. Results will come Monday in the small northeastern state of Mizoram.

The elections cover one-sixth of India's 1.2 billion-strong population.

Voter disenchantment with Premier Manmohan Singh's scandal-scarred Congress, which has ruled nationally for nearly a decade, and an economy growing at a decade low of five per cent is believed to have generated a groundswell of BJP support.

Modi, a charismatic speaker who campaigned energetically in the state elections, is one of India's most polarising politicians, tarnished by deadly anti-Muslim riots that occurred on his watch as Gujarat chief minister in 2002.

But business favours Modi, crediting him with turning Gujarat into an economic powerhouse.

The voter exit polls released late last week suggested the BJP would keep power in the central states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and oust Congress in northwestern Rajasthan.

The surveys also indicated the BJP could wrest power from Congress in the Delhi national capital, but fall short of a majority. Congress is seen holding onto Mizoram where the BJP is not a player.

Much of Delhi's election excitement has been sparked by the Aam Aadmi or Common Man party - born of an anti-corruption movement that swept India in 2011 - that made its political debut.

The party, whose symbol is a broom symbolising a clean sweep of India's corrupt politics, has been hoping for a "revolution" upset at the polls but surveys suggest it will come third. However, even that would be a big achievement for a new party, analysts say.

Prospects of a strong BJP showing swept shares and the rupee to fresh one-month highs Friday with investors betting success in state elections could presage a Modi victory nationally.

In the general elections, left-leaning Congress is seen struggling to win a third term while the BJP is expected to gain ground but not enough for a majority.

Modi, 63, will likely face Congress scion Rahul Gandhi, 43, whose family has given India three premiers, on the national campaign trail.

Analysts have questioned Modi's pan-India appeal while Rahul Gandhi has been a stumbling performer.

Some analysts say the national elections could result in an unstable outcome with smaller regional parties with diverse goals seizing the upper hand.