India's ruling Congress party is trailing in fourth place as vote counting neared its end in the country's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, indicating a mid-term blow for the national government and a setback for the fortunes of the Gandhi political dynasty.
Tuesday's early results meant bad news for Congress party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi who had staked his political future on reviving his party's fortunes in the key northern state.
Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its 65 years of independence, had campaigned tirelessly to revive his centre-left party in a politically crucial state where it has not held power for 22 years.
The campaign was also seen as a test of his fitness to take over from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after federal elections due in 2014.
Elections to provincial assemblies were held in five states over a period of one month, but it is the outcome from Uttar Pradesh where 200 million people live amid deep levels of poverty that is considered to be the most significant.
With partial results in for 386 of the 403 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh, Congress and a regional ally were leading in just 38, according to the Election Commission.
Congress, which heads the federal coalition government, won only 22 of the state's seats in the last poll.
This could mean a return to power for Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former wrestler who first governed Uttar Pradesh from 1989, when Rahul's father, Rajiv, was still alive.
However, Yadav's party - the leftist Samajwadi Party (SP) - looked set to fall short of an absolute majority, and so
it may seek a coalition with Congress to rule the state.
Gandhi on Tuesday accepted responsibility for the Congress party's poor results in the polls, saying: "I stood in front, so it is my responsibility.
"Organisationally we are not where we should be in UP (Uttar Pradesh state) ... I think it will be a very good lesson for me, because I think it will make me think about things in a detailed way," he told reporters in New Delhi.
Congress is looking to either take or return to power in four other states, namely northwestern farming heartland Punjab, the holiday playground of Goa, mountainous Uttarakhand, and northeastern Manipur.
A victory in Manipur, where Congress is historically dominant, looks almost certain, but the polls in the other three states are seen as too close to call.
The results come at a crucial time for 79-year-old Prime Minister Singh, who has been assailed by critics for his hands-off leadership style and his management of corruption scandals.
Gandhi, who is an elected national lawmaker from Uttar Pradesh, has pitched himself to the voting masses as a man who understands their everyday problems of corruption, unemployment and caste discrimination.
He says he wants to bring development and better governance to notoriously corrupt and economically deprived Uttar Pradesh, which has a population larger than Brazil.
Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi defended Gandhi's electioneering despite the disappointing results.
"Not even Rahul Gandhi's worst enemies, political or otherwise, suggest that his leadership was lacking. He was
outstanding," he said.
"He's gone to every nook and corner, he's provided the spirit, the euphoria, the leadership - if it doesn't translate, then it doesn't translate."
Narayanan Madhavan, assistant editor of India's Hindustan Times newspaper said "the fact is very simply that hard work has not paid off for Rahul Gandhi," especially given the fact that Uttar Pradesh is of symbolic importance to the Gandhi family.
Madhavan said the results were "certainly a setback" for the party, adding that "the charisma, the famous charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family seems to be on the wane, much like family jewels being sold off and the family becoming poorer. In this case, the goodwill of the family is in question".
The elections in the five states were held in stages over the last five weeks, beginning on January 28 in Manipur and finishing at the weekend in Uttar Pradesh and Goa.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|
|William A. Cook|