By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 17, 2009
NEW DELHI, May 16 -- India's neighbors are in turmoil, and its young population is increasingly restive with expectations of prosperity despite a global economic crisis. With that in mind, voters sent their government a clear mandate: Stay the course.
Defying analysts' predictions, a majority of India's 714 million eligible voters endorsed the ruling Congress party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former economist who has championed the poor and pushed for rural development and a more open economy.
"The people of India have spoken with great clarity. They've expressed their support for Congress's visionary leadership," said Singh, who will become the country's first full-term prime minister in nearly 40 years to be voted back into power.
"We have given this country a strong, stable government at a time when the world is danger. Today, we stand as one nation," the blue-turbaned Singh, 76, told reporters.
Outside the party's headquarters, supporters danced in the 110-degree heat, ate ice pops in the shape of a hand -- the party's symbol -- and shouted, "Singh is King!"
It was a spectacular win for the party linked to one of the country's founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru, patriarch of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has typically dominated politics since independence in 1947.
The results of marathon five-phase polls showed an apparent rebuff of efforts by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to paint Congress as weak in the face of threats by militant groups based in neighboring Pakistan. The BJP harped on last November's three-day siege of Mumbai, a slowing economy and a nuclear deal with Washington that nearly brought down the government last year.
At stake in the election and the weeks of alliance-building that are sure to follow is the leadership of 1.2 billion people in a nation with two distinct faces: the shining India of malls and call centers, and a feudal, caste-driven and largely rural country where two-thirds of the population lives on $2 a day or less.
"In the end, the rural voter wasn't worried about terrorism, and they are the ones who vote," said Shylashri Shankar, an analyst for the New Delhi Center for Policy Research. "They figured neither party can stop bomb blasts."
The Congress party and its coalition partners soared ahead with 260 seats in the country's 543-seat Parliament, just shy of a majority. It was Congress's biggest win in 20 years.
The BJP coalition, led by 81-year-old L.K. Advani, who is nicknamed Iron Man for his tough stand against terrorism, is set to take 160 seats.
"The BJP accepts the mandate of the people of India with all humility," senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said at the party's headquarters in the capital, where a trickle of supporters napped in the midday sun.
A key U.S. ally, India is surrounded by instability: a strengthening Taliban in Pakistan, the collapse of a Maoist-led government in Nepal and a civil war in Sri Lanka.
Using what experts called "the terror card," the BJP pushed its image as a "strong leader, with decisive government." Campaign ads showed the balding and white-haired Advani pumping iron at the gym. His party also launched India's largest Internet and text-message campaign.
But Congress appears to have benefited from five successive years of near-double-digit growth, loan waivers for farmers, cheap rice and work programs that targeted India's vast rural areas, where a majority of people live and most say they care more about schools than security.
"It's jai ho for the country. It's jai ho for the poor. It's jai ho for Manmohan Singh," said Digvijay Singh, Congress's general secretary, using a slogan that the party purchased the rights to from the Oscar-winning song in the film "Slumdog Millionaire." "Jai ho" is Hindi for "let there be victory."
Congress made sweeping gains in this election, notably in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. In the past, the state's chief minister, Mayawati -- the country's most famous Dalit, or untouchable -- trounced Congress by building a party based on the lowest untouchable caste, high-caste Brahmins and Muslims. Some pundits even predicted she could be the next prime minister if the two main parties did not get enough votes.
But many Dalits said they have been horrified by corruption allegations and Mayawati's fondness for lavish birthday celebrations. Her party fell far short of early predictions.
One of the biggest winners was Congress's 38-year-old heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi.
Like a rock star, the dimple-faced Gandhi crisscrossed the country, giving the party fresh momentum and attracting camera-phone clicking crowds. He attended 120 rallies, three times more than Singh or his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the party's president.
Drawing heavily on emotional symbolism, he sipped tea with lower castes, once considered taboo, and campaigned heavily to regain its traditional base among the poor, Muslims and high-caste Brahmins.
He is increasingly viewed as a future prime minister, and the election was seen as a start in his rise. Saturday, the prime minister announced he would persuade Rahul Gandhi to join the cabinet, but it was unclear what ministry he would lead.
"My job as I see it now is changing the politics of the country through the youngsters," Gandhi said.
Outside Congress headquarters in New Delhi, young supporters shouted for Gandhi to be made prime minister right away, an idea he has rejected.
"I want everyone to be like Rahul Gandhi," said Farzana Malik, 26, who was dressed in white -- a symbol of the party -- and stood near a map of India made of roses and marigolds at the boisterous headquarters. "I'm a female Muslim. I think Congress will protect us. The BJP thrives on anger."
The BJP put off some voters with its anti-Muslim rhetoric in this nation with a history of religious violence. The party may have suffered from its association with one of the most controversial rising stars in Indian politics, Gujarat state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, who was accused of standing by as Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims during 2002 riots in the state. He has since tried to repackage himself as a pro-business candidate.
At the empty BJP campaign bookstore Saturday, workers said they had sold only a few flags and buttons and no books.
"I'm really feeling disappointed," said shopkeeper Miank Sherma, 32. "But ultimately India has not lost. Democracy has won."
Special correspondent Pragya Krishna contributed to this report.