NEW DELHI — In a shockingly one-sided victory, the ruling Congress Party's secular alliance defeated the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in the month-long Indian general election, local media reported Saturday as results flooded in.
The surprise outcome means that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not only return to power, but also that his government won't depend on support from the Left, as exit polls predicted. With more than 70 percent of the votes counted, Indian television channels called the election for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), reporting that the Congress Party alone would win 200 parliamentary seats, and 257 seats together with its allies.
Previously, the most optimistic exit polls had suggested that the entire UPA coalition would win just 216 parliamentary seats and the Congress Party just 160. To form a majority government in India and select the prime minister, a single party or coalition must win 272 of 543 constituencies. Even if the UPA tally doesn't increase as counting finishes, with 257 seats it can easily attain a majority with the addition of one of the smaller parties that will be angling for influence.
The verdict vindicated Singh's steadfast refusal to give up last year's path-breaking nuclear pact with the U.S., which freed India from sanctions related to its noncompliance with the global Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was a vote for Congress-style secularism and acknowledgement of India's diversity over the BJP's ideology of ethnic chauvinism. And it proved that UPA programs like a national rural employment guarantee scheme, a huge waiver of loans to farmers, and an expansion of the quotas for the so-called lower-caste Indians in higher education resonated with voters.
“Overall, it is a resounding vote for development and good governance,” said Congress Party General Secretary Prithviraj Chavan.
Because India's communist parties continue to oppose the nuclear pact with the U.S. and remain suspicious of India's burgeoning economic and military ties with America, it is also a verdict that is sure to go down well in Washington. And because the Left blocked Singh from pushing forward with liberalizing India's economy — preventing progress on loosening labor laws, selling off state-owned enterprises, and opening up new sectors like retail to direct foreign investment — the results will also provide some unexpected cheer to the business community.
The Indian stock exchange, too, will doubtless get a boost on Monday from the prospect of a stable government that will almost certainly survive for its entire five-year term.
“Clearly, the perception of stability will be reinforced, so there's no fear of government collapse and mid-term elections,” said Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Standard & Poor's Asia Pacific. “That's absolutely critical in these circumstances for medium- and long-term planning" of business activities and investments.
But the most exciting implications of these results lie in the complex terrain of India's domestic politics. The vote has been hailed as marking the official arrival of Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi as a major figure, signaling the decline of identity politics and sounding the death knell for religious extremism.
Throughout his early career, and, indeed, throughout this campaign, Rahul Gandhi — who is the direct descendant of three of India's most respected prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — was decried as an untested political ingenue, much as John F. Kennedy Jr. was in the years shortly after he finally passed the bar exam.
This election was Rahul's first real test. Despite his inexperience he made some bold moves — convincing senior members of the party that the Congress should fight the elections alone rather than forming pre-poll alliances in several key states, for instance.
He was the party's chief campaigner, traveling constantly and logging thousands of kilometers by convoy and helicopter. He sometimes went as far as to ditch his security cordon to woo voters from India's poorest classes with symbolic gestures like eating meals in the homes of Dalits (the people once called Untouchables). In both respects, he was incredibly successful, simultaneously rejuvenating the Congress as a national force and shaking the stranglehold that the Dalit leader Mayawati held on Uttar Pradesh (UP), India's most populous state.
“It was a huge victory for him, at many levels,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “One, the fact that there's a revival underway in UP, where he took the decision to go without allies and campaigned very hard. Second, the Congress has done well in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Gujarat — these are the states where Rahul experimented with reviving the Youth Congress. In that sense, it might strengthen his hand about the kind of organization that is needed in the party.”
Longtime political observers now also say that the Congress's huge gains in UP — and its strong performance in many other states where pollsters and pundits had been predicting that regional parties based on caste and ethnic formulations would dominate — may signal an end to the identity-based voting that has ruled Indian politics since the mid-1980s.
In this regard, it wasn't just the gains that Rahul's Congress made against Mayawati in UP that were significant; also significant was the thumping defeat in Bihar of Lalu Prasad Yadav, a middle-caste icon once as powerful and controversial a figure in his state as Boss Tweed.
The verdict points toward an end of regional factionalism, Mehta said. “Two things are clearly coming out,” he said. “It's a vote against the politics of opportunism — all kinds of small parties and formulations [allied for cynical reasons]. The second interesting trend is that you cannot take any vote bank for granted. The things that we took for granted, the Muslim vote, the Dalit vote, were all up for grabs.”
For the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election was a total debacle. As the results rolled in on the local television network CNN/IBN, historian Ramachandra Guha drew attention to the electorate's rejection of divisive and extremist politics to call this “the most sensible verdict in an Indian election since 1977.”
As such, this will undoubtedly be the swan song for Lal Krishna Advani — who could not shake the reputation for prejudice and extremism he had acquired while spearheading the agitation that led to the destruction of the 16th century Babri mosque in 1992 — and it confirms that the BJP faces a full-on leadership crisis.
“We never imagined this unexpected result,” said BJP President Rajnath Singh as he conceded defeat and announced that the party would retreat to headquarters Saturday night for a long session of troubled soul-searching.
They have plenty of reason to worry. Analysts see the verdict as a rejection of jingoistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and some suggest this could relegate the BJP to a perennial also-ran. None of the BJP's attempts to polarize the electorate over issues like terrorism or the dredging of a canal through a natural land bridge that some devout Hindus believe was built by the god Ram ever got off the ground. And there are serious questions about whether the party's erstwhile alliance partners will accept Advani's heir apparent, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, due to his alleged role in the 2002 pogrom that killed as many as a thousand Muslims in Ahmedabad.
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