NEW DELHI: India's ruling Congress party and its famed Gandhi political dynasty suffered a stinging election blow on Tuesday as votes were counted in five state polls.
Figures showed Congress, which runs the federal government in New Delhi, winning clearly in only one state and facing a landslide defeat in crucial Uttar Pradesh (UP), India's most populous and politically significant state.
The polls were a mid-term popularity test for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scandal-tainted government ahead of 2014 elections and a first real appraisal of Rahul Gandhi, the next in line in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
"I stood in front, so it is my responsibility," Gandhi told reporters as he conceded defeat. "All of us in the Congress party fought. We fought well but the result which came was not so good."
Gandhi, a 41-year-old presumed "prime-minister-in-waiting" led campaigning in Uttar Pradesh in a bid to revive Congress -- his biggest challenge yet in a state where the party has a dismal record stretching back 22 years.
The first confirmed results and projections showed Congress winning just 27 out of 403 seats, representing only a small increase on their miserly tally in 2007 despite Gandhi's tireless work at public rallies.
The failure will likely feed doubts about his ability to lead the world's biggest democracy and might rekindle interest in his sister Priyanka, whom some Gandhi loyalists still prefer.
"Certainly I expect to have victories along the way and I expect to have defeats," Rahul added, explaining that revitalising Congress in UP was a long-term project. "This is one of the defeats so I take it in my stride."
The tragedy-plagued Gandhi family has dominated politics in India since independence in 1947, providing three prime ministers, two of whom were assassinated. Rahul's Italian-born mother Sonia is current Congress president.
"One thing is clear, the Nehru-Gandhi charisma is no longer a major factor in winning elections," political analyst and commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao told.
"The opposition can take satisfaction from the fact that Rahul Gandhi has not really emerged as a leader of national stature."
Even in the historic Gandhi family constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi, from where Sonia and Rahul are elected for the national parliament, non-Congress candidates looked poised for victory.
Prime Minister Singh, a 79-year-old former academic and economist, is also likely to face searching questions about his hands-off style of leadership and his stewardship of the government since his re-election in 2009.
A series of high-profile corruption scandals and a popular anti-corruption campaign led by activist Anna Hazare last summer have badly damaged Singh's image and hurt the party in the state polls.
"It is very difficult to pinpoint reasons why we didn't do better than what we have done," Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told the NDTV news channel.
Following a record high turn-out of 59.5 percent in UP, incumbent Chief Minister Mayawati, a colourful low-caste leader famed for her handbags and taste for expensive statues, was also heading for a thumping defeat.
Victory appeared almost certain for the regional Samajwadi Party (SP) which is headed by a former wrestler and draws on support from low-caste farmers and Muslims.
Akhilesh Yadav, the charismatic son of SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, promised a crackdown on corruption and said the support for his party showed voters have "risen above caste and religion."
Congress lost heavily in the holiday state Goa, where it had been in power, and was struggling to regain the agricultural heartland of Punjab and the mountainous northern state of Uttarakhand.
Impoverished Manipur in the far northeast of India was the bright spot for Congress, where the party looked certain to remain in power.
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 UP and Goa. (AFP)