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Voters Tell India's Ruling Party to Persevere

Congress's Singh Becomes First Full-Term Prime Minister in 40 Years to Be Reelected

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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.

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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.

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