- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

NEW DELHI — Millions of impoverished Indians, angered over being left out of their country’s economic boom, handed the opposition Congress party a stunning victory in Parliament yesterday, reviving the storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in one of the biggest political upsets since independence.

The party of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee conceded the vote, leaving Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, poised to take the helm of the world’s largest democracy.

“Over the next few days, the process of government formation will gather momentum,” Mrs. Gandhi, 57, told a raucous news conference in which reporters jostled and shouted, eager to get a comment from a politician who rarely speaks to the press. “We will take the lead, ensure our country has strong, stable and secular government,” she said.

When asked if she would be prime minister, she refused to answer, saying only that it would be up to the alliance leaders.

Her victory was sweetened by her 34-year-old son, Rahul Gandhi, winning a Parliament seat. “My mother is my hero,” he told reporters from the family stronghold of Amethi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “Today’s verdict is on my mother’s work and the strength of the Congress.”

With the final tally for the 539 constituencies being counted from the three-week election, Congress and its leftist party allies had collected 279 seats, a majority of the national legislature and enough to form the new government.

The ousted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies had 187 seats, and other smaller parties and independents had 73.

The tally took some 16 hours, with more than 1,200 counting centers adding up 380 million digital ballots from electronic voting machines.

Mr. Vajpayee, who quit last night, campaigned on the slogan “India Shining,” which focused on the country’s 8 percent growth rate, a push in information technology and a pledge to make India a developed nation by 2020. But his decision to call the election six months early was a devastating miscalculation.

“We have given up office, but not our responsibility to serve the nation. We have lost an election, but not our determination,” Mr. Vajpayee said in a somber address to the nation late last night. “Victory and defeat are a part of life, which are to be viewed with equanimity.”

Results indicated millions of rural poor people abandoned Mr. Vajpayee and his “India Shining” campaign while also rejecting his Hindus-first message in favor of the secularism of Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress party.

India’s stock market, which turned jittery on news that Mr. Vajpayee would be ousted, rebounded after it became clear Congress would provide a stable government.

Business leaders said they expect Congress to continue with the economic reforms, which were initiated by the same party in 1991.

Congress focused its campaign on the country’s 300 million people who still live on less than a dollar a day. It hammered away at the lack of even basic infrastructure, electricity and potable water. India’s per capita income has grown from $370 to $480 in just four years, but it’s still one of the world’s lowest.

Still, Mr. Vajpayee excelled as a diplomat and forged close ties with Washington and longtime foes, Israel and China. He raised hopes of a lasting peace with Pakistan by calling for dialogue over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The Bush administration said it would keep encouraging India and Pakistan to settle their differences through diplomacy.

“We’ve had excellent relations with India and we look forward to continuing those relations,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said while congratulating the Congress party on its victory.

Pakistan expressed confidence yesterday that the peace process would continue. Information Minister Shaik Rashid Ahmed said the process involved the two governments, not “individual personalities.”

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