India’s ruling party wins resounding victory

NEW DELHI – The Congress party headed to a resounding victory Saturday in India’s monthlong national elections, defying expectations of a poor showing to secure a second term in power as the country battles an economic downturn.

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 India’s downtrodden, wants a “stable, strong government which is committed to secular values,” he said.

Singh was clearly referring to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the country’s other main party, which failed to convince voters to change the national leadership during a time of economic uncertainty and regional instability.

“We accept the people’s verdict,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP official. “Certainly something did go wrong.”

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.

It appeared to be a massive victory for the Congress coalition — but would still leave it slightly short of the 272 seats needed to govern alone and it would require the support of other parties. India has been ruled by coalition governments for most of the last two decades.

Certainly, though, the results appeared far better for Congress than nearly everyone expected. For months, polls and political observers have 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.

Things now appear far clearer: Congress “seems to have the upper hand,” said Venkaiah Naidu, a BJP leader.

The “Third Front,” an alliance of communist, regional and caste-based parties that had banded together — and which for a time had been seen as a wild card that could emerge with immense power — appeared to have done poorly. Most news stations predicted they would win less than 70 seats.

As results came in, celebrations erupted outside the Congress party headquarters. Party workers set off fireworks and danced in the streets carrying posters of party leader Sonia Gandhi.

“We have won a thumping majority,” Congress activist Parag Jain said outside the party offices, in a leafy, elegant south New Delhi neighborhood. “Successful rule begins and ends with Congress and the Gandhi family.”

The BJP’s office compound offered a somber contrast, as supporters and party workers held quiet discussions inside the shuttered gates, decorated with the party symbol of a lotus flower.

The Congress party has long said that Singh, 76, would return to power if it won. But the election was also a clear victory for 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. The family was closely allied to the pacifist icon Mohandas Gandhi, though they are not related.

The Congress party has historically stood as a “secular” party popular with Muslims and other minorities in the Hindu-majority country that has seen waves of bloody religious clashes. The party’s base also includes India’s vast population of farmers and rural villagers who have been largely left out of the economic revolution. But more than anything, the Congress party has been linked with the powerful Gandhi family and its tragic legacy.

The results also indicated that the communist parties, a traditional power in Indian politics, had dropped from 60 seats to less than half that number.

Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said it was cause to re-examine their approach, saying they had “suffered a major setback.”

The communist parties had supported Congress for much of the previous term, but broke ties over the Indian-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, the cornerstone of warmer relations between New Delhi and Washington.

According to the constitution, a new legislature has to be in place by June 2.

The long, grueling campaign season produced few central issues that resonated across the wildly diverse nation of 1.2 billion people and 714 million eligible voters. Total voter turnout was approximately 60 percent, the national election commission said, up slightly from 58 percent in the last national vote in 2004.

The massive vote, the largest in the democratic world, was held between April 16 and May 13, staggered across five phases for logistical and security reasons.