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Analysts see ruling party's decisive victory as a rejection of identity politics.
NEW DELHI — In a shockingly one-sided victory, the ruling Congress Party's secular alliance defeated the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in the month-long Indian general election, local media reported Saturday as results flooded in.
The surprise outcome means that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will not only return to power, but also that his government won't depend on support from the Left, as exit polls predicted. With more than 70 percent of the votes counted, Indian television channels called the election for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), reporting that the Congress Party alone would win 200 parliamentary seats, and 257 seats together with its allies.
Previously, the most optimistic exit polls had suggested that the entire UPA coalition would win just 216 parliamentary seats and the Congress Party just 160. To form a majority government in India and select the prime minister, a single party or coalition must win 272 of 543 constituencies. Even if the UPA tally doesn't increase as counting finishes, with 257 seats it can easily attain a majority with the addition of one of the smaller parties that will be angling for influence.
The verdict vindicated Singh's steadfast refusal to give up last year's path-breaking nuclear pact with the U.S., which freed India from sanctions related to its noncompliance with the global Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was a vote for Congress-style secularism and acknowledgement of India's diversity over the BJP's ideology of ethnic chauvinism. And it proved that UPA programs like a national rural employment guarantee scheme, a huge waiver of loans to farmers, and an expansion of the quotas for the so-called lower-caste Indians in higher education resonated with voters.
“Overall, it is a resounding vote for development and good governance,” said Congress Party General Secretary Prithviraj Chavan.
Because India's communist parties continue to oppose the nuclear pact with the U.S. and remain suspicious of India's burgeoning economic and military ties with America, it is also a verdict that is sure to go down well in Washington. And because the Left blocked Singh from pushing forward with liberalizing India's economy — preventing progress on loosening labor laws, selling off state-owned enterprises, and opening up new sectors like retail to direct foreign investment — the results will also provide some unexpected cheer to the business community.
The Indian stock exchange, too, will doubtless get a boost on Monday from the prospect of a stable government that will almost certainly survive for its entire five-year term.
“Clearly, the perception of stability will be reinforced, so there's no fear of government collapse and mid-term elections,” said Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Standard & Poor's Asia Pacific. “That's absolutely critical in these circumstances for medium- and long-term planning" of business activities and investments.
But the most exciting implications of these results lie in the complex terrain of India's domestic politics. The vote has been hailed as marking the official arrival of Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi as a major figure, signaling the decline of identity politics and sounding the death knell for religious extremism.