Indira Gandhi, back from political oblivion, today accepted her overwhelming victory in India's national election as nothing more than her due.
"I have done a good job in the election as I had done in government before," she told supporters who crowded into the front yard of a sprawling bungalow near downtown New Delhi to help celebrate her victory.
Speaking of the Indian voters who handed her a humiliating defeat 33 months ago, she said, "They woke up in 1977 soon after making their big mistake."
While the counting continued tonight, there was no doubt that Gandhi's Congress-I (for Indira) Party would capture a clear majority of the 542-member lower house at Parliament and be able to form India's new government, with Gandhi returning to the prime minister's job that she held for 11 years until her defeat in 1977.
Just six months ago Gandhi told a Washington Post reporter that she expected to be in jail by September as a result of concerted efforts by the Janata government to punish her for her use of harsh emergency powers during the last 19 months of her reign as prime minister.
Gandhi's victory was almost the same as Richard Nixon being swept back into office as president of the United States.
Just as Nixon was forced to resign under threat of impeachment, so, too, was Gandhi pushed out of office. Not only was her party soundly defeated in the 1977 national vote but she was expelled from Parliament in 1978 after winning a by-election. She was thrown into jail for a week during Christmas that year on charges of abusing her parliamentary powers. Her passport was taken away and tax men searched her farm with metal detectors for buried loot.
She still faces charges of corruption and illegally jailing political opponents during her emergency rule.
By election eve, the uplift of the campaign and the anticipation of victory had restored the 67-year-old Gandhi's spirits. In an interview with four American reporters she spoke as if she already had won, saying her two top priorities were to improve law and order and bring down prices, although she refused to outline specific programs.
However, she pledged not to return to her controversial, 21-month period of emergency rule, during which tens of thousands of Indians were jailed and individual freedoms curtailed. She said she would avoid such a step "for the very simple reason that it would be counterproductive" and added that the imposition of press censorship had been a "major mistake."
Gandhi said she would not wield the power of government against her political enemies, although she claimed her opponents had concentrated for the past 33 months in trying to put her, her family and her close associates in jail.
"I am not vindictive and they (her opponents) know I am not," she said.
In regard to foreign policy, she acknowledged that India was "closer to the Soviet Union (than the United States) . . . but this does not influence our decisions."
As for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she said "there is no excuse for Soviet troops to go into Afghanistan. I am against any interference and naturally the more it is, the more I am against it, especially the bringing in of troops."
But Gandhi noted that Soviet moves in Afghanistan were unlikely to affect India directly and said the real threat to India lay in U.S. arms supplies to Pakistan, India's neighbor.
"Soviets by themselves will not do anything to us . . . not as of now.Why should they?" she said.
Arms in Pakistan, however, "may be used against India because the situation there is so politically unstable. The most dangerous thing is to have a weak neighbor.
"Besides," she added, "when the internal situation is unstable as it is in Pakistan, the arms may be used against its own people."
Results from 356 of the 542 districts gave 277 seats to Gandhi's Congress-I Party and 15 to its allies.
Her opponents were in disarray. Jagjivan Ram's Janata, the coalition that defeated Gandhi in 1977 and the party expected to provide the strongest opposition to her, had gained 13 seats, compared to the 278 it polled in 1977.
Caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh's coalition of his breakaway Janata faction and the rump Congress Party won 24 seats between them.
Singh won easily from his district of Bagpat, where there had been charges that large numbers of Untouchables -- members of India's lowest caste -- were kept from voting by the small landowning farmers who gave him his greatest support.
But Raj Narain, the party president who defeated Gandhi in 1977 in Rae Bareli, was losing this time in another constituency.
Ram, the 71 year old Untouchable leader, who has been in every Indian cabinet save two since independence, won easily from his district.
Gandhi swept to an overwhelming personal victory in one of the two constituencies where she was on the ballot and also was far ahead in the district of Rae Bareli where she lost in 1977.
Her 33-year-old son, Sanjay Gandhi, won an overwhelming victory in his constituency of Amethi, next to Rae Bareli in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Sanjay Gandhi, who is appealing one conviction, is also being investigated following an official commission report that he used special influence to start up an automobile firm that never produced a car but provided riches for him and his friends.
Many of Gandhi's associates from her emergency rule were returned to power by the Indian voters. Among them were Bansi Lal, the defense minister in the Gandhi government who was taken to jail in handcuffs and accused of bending government rules to help Sanjay set up his auto factory, and Jagdish Tyrler, a codefendant with Sanjay in a case involving assault on a police office during a riot here last May.
While Gandhi -- an aristocratic woman whose father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leader in its India's independence fight and its first prime minister -- displayed little public emotion at her victory, her supporters danced with glee on the lawn of her house this morning.
A band played music that sounded more like New Orleans than New Delhi as Congress-I workers trooped past hastily erected police barracades to see their favorite.
Gandhi rarely smiled -- except when the cameras were on her. At one point she arranged campaign workers into a better picture, but for the most part she stood on a platform receiving supporters who filed past, sometimes handing back garlands to young children.
She said she went to bed at 10:30 p.m. yesterday -- while her victory was far from clear -- and awoke at 7:30 this morning. One close aide said she paid little attention to the results, and instead sorted New Year's greetings with a daughter-in-law.