NEW DELHI // India's ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party, claimed a resounding victory in the month-long general election yesterday, defying expectations of a hung parliament and re-establishing Congress as the dominant force in national politics. Results were still trickling in late last night, but with more than 90 per cent of the vote counted the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was projected to win a total of 261 seats, up from 180 in the last parliament, with most of that increase accounted for by Congress's gains.
Congress won 206 seats compared with 145 seats at the last election, in 2004, following a campaign that centred around Rahul Gandhi, 38, the son of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of Congress and heir to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty. It is the highest number of seats any party has won since 1991. Around 428 million, or 60 per cent of the electorate, cast their vote in the five-phase elections. The results leave the UPA just short of the 272 seats required to form a government, but Congress Party officials were confident they would be able to make up the shortfall by attracting smaller regional parties.
"Eventually the people of India know what's good for them and they always make the right choice," Mrs Gandhi told reporters outside her home in New Delhi. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, who is now certain to retain that post, said: "The people of India have spoken and they have spoken with great clarity." Mr Singh, 76, said he wanted to bring Mr Gandhi into the cabinet, fuelling perceptions that the MP is being groomed to take over as prime minister, a post held by his father, grandmother and great-grandfather. Right up until Friday, analysts had predicted that both Congress and the main opposition party, the Bharitaya Janata Party, would lose ground to small regional parties, leading to the creation of a fragile coalition government that might not last the full parliamentary term.
Now, however, Congress is in a strong position to lead a coalition government for a full five years without relying on the support of India's communist parties, who oppose much needed economic reforms. "India finally has a stable government; it's a historic result," said Subhash Agarwal, a Delhi-based political analyst. "There will be a lot less ideological baggage with this government, a lot fewer unreliable allies. It's all positive."
The new coalition government will face a weakened opposition as the voters appeared to reject the BJP's brand of Hindu nationalism, returning it with only 116 seats compared with 138 in 2004. The poor result ends the long-held hopes of the BJP leader, LK Advani, 81, of one day being India's prime minister. The National Democratic Alliance, the coalition led by the BJP was projected to win a total of 163 seats, down from 177 in the last parliament.
As the results came in, celebrations erupted outside the Congress Party headquarters. Party workers set off fireworks and danced in the streets with posters of Rahul and his sister, Priyanka. At the BJP headquarters, only a short distance away, the mood was sombre. Shortly after 1pm, a senior BJP official, Arun Jaitley, conceded the party's defeat. "We accept the people's verdict," Mr Jaitley said. "Certainly something did go wrong."
The results also indicated that India's communist parties, who withdrew their support from the UPA last year over a nuclear deal with the United States, also fared badly. "The Communist party and Left parties have suffered a major setback," Prakash Karat, the leader of the Communist Party of India, said. "This necessitates a serious examination for the reasons for our failure." Before the election, Mr Karat, who heads the Third Front, a grouping of opposition parties allied with neither Congress nor the BJP, was hopeful that both two main national parties would see their vote share diminished, paving the way for his coalition to form the government.
"The BJP and the Left haven't caught on to the huge social and demographic changes that have taken place in India," Mr Agarawal said. "Today's voters don't care about ideology; they want pragmatic solutions, not obsessions. They want problem solvers not people hung up on sorting out old differences." Negotiations as to which party or parties will help Congress make up its majority are likely to continue for the next few days, with the leaders of most regional parties expected in Delhi next week.
One of those potential partners is Mayawati, known as the Dalit Queen because her support base is drawn from the impoverished and marginalised Dalit, or untouchable, community in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party contested almost every seat in this election in the hope that a strong result might see one of the larger parties grant her the prime ministership in return for her support.
In the end her party gained only two seats, taking the total to 21. Mr Singh, a former International Monetary Fund governor, is expected to tender his resignation in the coming days and continue as caretaker prime minister until the new parliament is convened in June 2. Analysts predicted Indian stock markets would rally when they reopen tomorrow. firstname.lastname@example.org