In Huge Upset, Gandhi's Party Wins Election in India

Posted in Other | 13-May-04 | Author: Amy Waldman| Source: The New York Times

NEW DELHI, May 13 — The opposition Indian National Congress scored a resounding victory in parliamentary elections today, forcing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his governing coalition to resign.

The Congress emerged as the single largest party in the poll results announced today.

The party, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, therefore appeared poised to form the country's next government with the likely support of its electoral allies and the country's Communist parties.

It is not yet certain — although it seems likely — that Mrs. Gandhi herself will stake claim to be prime minister, since even some of the party's allies have questioned whether a woman of non-Indian origin should lead this nation of more than 1 billion people.

Still, the verdict represents a totally unexpected resurrection for the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, which governed India for 45 of the 57 years since independence but had floundered so badly in recent years that it was being written off as an historical relic.

Early returns showed the Congress and its allies with 220 seats to the 189 of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., and its coalition partners, a result that no pundit or exit poll had come close to predicting.

"I have seen my mother fight with her back to the wall and she has won," Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, and himself a newly elected legislator, said today. "She has won against odds."

The results amounted to a stunning upset of the Hindu nationalist B.J.P., which had expected to return to rule on the strength of the 79-year-old Mr. Vajpayee's popularity. The party had called early elections, hoping to capitalize on a monsoon-fed economic boom and Mr. Vajpayee's peace initiative with Pakistan.

Instead, the party earned even fewer seats than in 1999, and Mr. Vajpayee will now be denied his chance to be the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a five-year term.

"I am half heart-broken and half stunned," said Pramod Mahajan, a key campaign strategist for the B.J.P.

The implications for the direction of the country will take time to emerge. Some business leaders have expressed concern that a change in government could slow economic reforms, although it was Congress, under the finance minister at that time, Manmohan Singh, that initiated those reforms in 1991.

The fate of peace with Pakistan — which had been predicated to an extent on the trust built in recent months between Mr. Vajpayee and the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and their aides — also hangs in the balance.

The end of Hindu nationalist rule could bring other changes as well, such as the possibility of less culturally conservative policies in the face of the country's burgeoning AIDS crisis, and the end of efforts to introduce Hindu nationalist themes into educational curriculums.

The B.J.P. had constructed an American-style presidential campaign around Mr. Vajpayee's perceived popularity, but it ran aground on the realities of the Indian parliamentary system, in which voters turned on incumbent legislators who they felt had delivered little. Indian voters are known for their anti-incumbency, and that was in evidence today.

But even more, voters — particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas — rebelled against the idea of "India Shining" that had been peddled by the incumbent government in a glossy, costly public relations campaign.

The resentment of the B.J.P. and its efforts to peddle the "feel-good factor" was almost palpable today among a small knot of working-class men gathered to watch the results on a news ticker in New Delhi. Many expressed dismay, common among Indians nostalgic for the quasi-socialist economy of India's first 40 years, at the economic reforms with which the B.J.P. had proudly identified itself.

"Basically it is the anger of the working class," said Sawali Rai, 34, who works in a public sector bank. "Privatization, no government jobs, prices rising. On the pressure of the World Bank they are pressuring the common man."

And unlike in the United States, where the most prosperous also vote the most, in India it is the poor who turn out in greatest numbers. That means that the very voters for whom India has been shining — urbanites from the middle and upper classes who benefited from globalization and reforms — are also least likely to vote.

The B.J.P. also seemed to suffer from its association with the Hindu nationalism that had powered its rise. Muslims, still repelled by the anti-Muslim carnage in the B.J.P.-controlled state of Gujarat in 2002, resisted the party's efforts to woo them, as did many Indians concerned about the weakening of the country's secular identity. Congress and its allies had united around a secular platform.

At the same time, hard-core Hindu nationalists have been disillusioned by the party's tempering of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, in its time in power and in this campaign. Ram Madhav, a spokesman for the Association of National Volunteers, the parent Hindu nationalist organization, said today that the B.J.P. had campaigned on Mr. Vajpayee's personality and policy, he said, but ideology — "an emotive issue" — was missing.

"There was a general lack of enthusiasm among the core voters and cadres of the party," he said.

Hindu nationalist groups and some leaders of the B.J.P. had sought to find that emotive issue in Mrs. Gandhi's foreign origins, and her Christian roots in this majority Hindu nation, but it failed to take with Indian voters.

"She's a citizen of the country," a retiree, Uday Singh Rawat, 63, said of Mrs. Gandhi. "The Constitution says she can be prime minister."

Still, Mr. Mahajan of the B.J.P. could not resist revisiting the issue today. "It's a democracy; Indians have a right to choose, and if they have chosen, she has a right to rule," he said. "Still I maintain that it's shameful for me if a foreigner rules this country."

Mrs. Gandhi, 57, is a shy, politically stilted woman who endured the assassination of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, and then her husband. She then went into a seclusion of sorts, emerging in 1998 to try to halt the Congress Party's decline.

Critics say she has preserved the party's feudal, dynastic nature, and lacks both the political adeptness and intellectual depth to be prime minister. But her defenders credit her with saving the party and proving herself a dedicated student of India and its politics, and a defender of its secular values and its poor. On the campaign trail, she has shown herself a fighter who withstood sometimes withering personal attacks.

"She has shown herself to be a great leader," said her son, whose entry into politics this spring is also credited with reviving Congress fortunes.