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Analysts see ruling party's decisive victory as a rejection of identity politics.
Throughout his early career, and, indeed, throughout this campaign, Rahul Gandhi — who is the direct descendant of three of India's most respected prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — was decried as an untested political ingenue, much as John F. Kennedy Jr. was in the years shortly after he finally passed the bar exam.
This election was Rahul's first real test. Despite his inexperience he made some bold moves — convincing senior members of the party that the Congress should fight the elections alone rather than forming pre-poll alliances in several key states, for instance.
He was the party's chief campaigner, traveling constantly and logging thousands of kilometers by convoy and helicopter. He sometimes went as far as to ditch his security cordon to woo voters from India's poorest classes with symbolic gestures like eating meals in the homes of Dalits (the people once called Untouchables). In both respects, he was incredibly successful, simultaneously rejuvenating the Congress as a national force and shaking the stranglehold that the Dalit leader Mayawati held on Uttar Pradesh (UP), India's most populous state.
“It was a huge victory for him, at many levels,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “One, the fact that there's a revival underway in UP, where he took the decision to go without allies and campaigned very hard. Second, the Congress has done well in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Gujarat — these are the states where Rahul experimented with reviving the Youth Congress. In that sense, it might strengthen his hand about the kind of organization that is needed in the party.”
Longtime political observers now also say that the Congress's huge gains in UP — and its strong performance in many other states where pollsters and pundits had been predicting that regional parties based on caste and ethnic formulations would dominate — may signal an end to the identity-based voting that has ruled Indian politics since the mid-1980s.
In this regard, it wasn't just the gains that Rahul's Congress made against Mayawati in UP that were significant; also significant was the thumping defeat in Bihar of Lalu Prasad Yadav, a middle-caste icon once as powerful and controversial a figure in his state as Boss Tweed.
The verdict points toward an end of regional factionalism, Mehta said. “Two things are clearly coming out,” he said. “It's a vote against the politics of opportunism — all kinds of small parties and formulations [allied for cynical reasons]. The second interesting trend is that you cannot take any vote bank for granted. The things that we took for granted, the Muslim vote, the Dalit vote, were all up for grabs.”
For the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election was a total debacle. As the results rolled in on the local television network CNN/IBN, historian Ramachandra Guha drew attention to the electorate's rejection of divisive and extremist politics to call this “the most sensible verdict in an Indian election since 1977.”
As such, this will undoubtedly be the swan song for Lal Krishna Advani — who could not shake the reputation for prejudice and extremism he had acquired while spearheading the agitation that led to the destruction of the 16th century Babri mosque in 1992 — and it confirms that the BJP faces a full-on leadership crisis.
“We never imagined this unexpected result,” said BJP President Rajnath Singh as he conceded defeat and announced that the party would retreat to headquarters Saturday night for a long session of troubled soul-searching.
They have plenty of reason to worry. Analysts see the verdict as a rejection of jingoistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and some suggest this could relegate the BJP to a perennial also-ran. None of the BJP's attempts to polarize the electorate over issues like terrorism or the dredging of a canal through a natural land bridge that some devout Hindus believe was built by the god Ram ever got off the ground. And there are serious questions about whether the party's erstwhile alliance partners will accept Advani's heir apparent, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, due to his alleged role in the 2002 pogrom that killed as many as a thousand Muslims in Ahmedabad.
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