- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

NEW DELHI | The ruling Congress party swept to a resounding victory Saturday in India’s mammoth national elections, defying expectations as it brushed aside the Hindu nationalist opposition and a legion of ambitious smaller parties.

The strong showing by the party, which is dominated by the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, laid to rest fears of an unstable, shaky coalition heading the South Asian giant at a time when many of its neighbors are plagued by instability, civil war and rising extremism.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared victory, telling reporters that voters had given the Congress party-led coalition a “massive mandate.”

The left-of-center Congress, which has long tried to balance free-market reforms with a vow to protect the downtrodden in this country of 1.2 billion people, wants a “stable, strong government which is committed to secular values,” he said.

The results left the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country’s other main party, vowing a period of introspection after it failed to capitalize on the economic uncertainty and increased turmoil in Pakistan, India’s longtime rival.



“We will analyze these results in detail,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader conceding defeat. “The BJP accepts the mandate of the people of India with all humility.”

With most votes counted, the Election Commission said the Congress-led alliance had won - or was leading in - races for 254 seats in the 543-seat Parliament. The BJP alliance came up short with 153. The Congress party alone, without the support of its coalition allies, had won or was leading in 204 seats, putting it far ahead of all other parties.

While the results were a clear victory for the Congress coalition, it still leaves it short of the 272 seats needed to govern alone and will require the support of other parties. India has been ruled by coalition governments for most of the last two decades.

For months, polls and political observers had predicted that neither of the country’s two main parties would emerge a clear winner, forcing an unstable and unwieldy coalition that could have conceivably included dozens of smaller parties.

Analysts said that Congress - which posted the best results by an individual party in nearly two decades - reaped the rewards of dramatic economic growth during its last term and a series of high-profile pro-poor programs.

“It’s not just because it oversaw four years of 9 percent growth. What has probably helped was that its agenda was one of inclusive growth,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi.

President Obama congratulated India on its “historic national elections,” a White House statement said Saturday.

“By successfully completing the largest exercise of popular voting in the world, the elections have strengthened India’s vibrant democracy and upheld the values of freedom and pluralism that make India an example for us all,” the statement said.

While the results marked the success of the government’s policies, it also heralded the next chapter in the country’s deep ties to its most powerful political dynasty.

The Congress party has long said that Mr. Singh, 76, an economist and technocrat who helped open India’s economy nearly 20 years ago, would return to power if it won. But the election was also a clear victory for party chief Sonia Gandhi’s son, Rahul, who emerged as a key strategist during the campaign and became the party’s most visible face.

While a relative political newcomer, he has been increasingly viewed as a future prime minister. Rahul, 38, is a scion of India’s most powerful family - the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

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