Thursday, May 13, 2004

Congress Party wins Indian elections in upset

The general election results are in from India - and Sonia Ghandi has restored the Congress Party to power in a surprise upset victory:

NEW DELHI, May 13 — Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will resign this evening after his ruling coalition suffered a resounding defeat in parliamentary elections, party officials said today.

The Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, emerged as the single largest party in the poll results announced today. It 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 ruled 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.

The main reason for the win was the cognitive dissonance between the ruling ultranationalist/anti-muslim BJP's campaign platform of Shining India - touting India's economic growth - with the abject and worsening poverty of India's vast lower classes:

Failure to address the core issue of development and overconfidence on the "false campaign" of 'India Shining' led to the debacle of the BJP led NDA in the elections, leading economists said today.

They said the new Government should bring about balance in economic policies.

"They (NDA) went all out to prove India Shining whereas the reality was much different in rural belt and small towns," Prof. B B Bhattacharya of the Indian Institute of Economic Growth said, adding that "people who benefited from India Shining did not go out to vote".

Echoing similar views, Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University said the new Government will have to redirect the economic policy and make adjustments to address the concerns of farmers and unemployed.

The verdict was against the BJP which failed to read the voters' mind who were throughly dissatisfied with its performance, she said, adding "the new Government will have to undertake genuine reforms, put off mindless privatisation like selling profit making PSUs and focus on employment".

It was intriguing to see the BJP reaching out to muslim voters in a bid to win support during the election - but the memories of Gujarat were likely too strong to woo muslim voters to the party that was proven complicit in the horrific pogrom - including systematic rape and burning of underage girls - against them. I shed no tears for the BJP, a party which had played on sectarian and ethnic divisions and prejudice to maintain its grip. In a democratic, pluralistic nation like India, there is no place for the discredited politics of exclusion.

And I can think of no better leader than Sonia Ghandi to bring India out of the taint of the BJP's rule - a woman whose foreign birth is of no consequence to her identity as an Indian. She personifies the face of India as a nation based on ideals rather racial or religious identity.

However, significant challenges remain. Sonia Ghandi is still untested as a ruling politican. The victory of the Congress Party was essentially delivered by the poor - and there's a fine balance between charting an economic course that addresses their needs with one that irresponsibly tries to pander to their wants. India's economic recovery is fragile and the nation may need to swallow some bitter medicine in terms of economic policy for it to stay on course. If the Congress succeeds then the economy will become a rising tide that floats all boats - rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, alike.

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