India's poor bring back Gandhi clan
Prime Minister Vajpayee resigned Thursday, as a surprise election upset put Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party on top.
In a stunning turnaround, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party accepted defeat Thursday, opening the way for the Congress party to return to power for the first time in eight years.Skip to next paragraph
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The announcement came as polling results were still being counted in India's first ever all-electronic election. Congress, with a projected 217 seats, appears to have the best chance of forming a stable coalition, relying on left-wing and secular parties to give it a 285-seat majority of Parliament's 543 elected seats. Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party leader, is now the leading contender for India's next prime minister.
The surprising result springs from growing discontent among Indian voters about a decade of economic reform and economic growth that left the common man untouched. Yet, while some analysts say a Congress-led government would soften the effects of economic reforms, few expect Congress to halt India's free-market embrace.
"This was a vote against economic disparities" between rich and poor, says Rajeev Bhargava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "It's not a vote against economic reforms."
The ruling BJP was "overconfident" after winning a series of state elections last fall, Mr. Bhargava says, and quickly called national elections six months earlier than required. But instead of applauding the BJP for economic reform, says Bhargava, the voters - and especially rural and poor voters - sent the BJP a stinging message.
"Ten years of reforms have created two different Indias," says Bhargava. "One looks abroad and links itself to the international world of business and politics. There is another India that was left completely behind. And the second India is the much larger one. This group doesn't express itself on TV or in magazines, and the only way that it can express itself is through the ballot."
The international community greeted the election results with a mixture of caution and relief. Initial opinion polls predicted a hung Parliament, in which any ruling government would have been weak. Privately, US diplomats say that Indian-US relations would be largely unaffected by a Congress-led government. On the crucial issue of trade, Congress is likely to stay the course, since it was a Congress prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, who started economic reforms back in 1989.
Pakistan played down the significance of leadership change in its longtime rival. Observers here say that a Congress-led government would be likely to continue the peace initiatives of the harder-line BJP.
Apparently caught off guard by the results, the BJP now will begin changing the guard. And the Congress will begin negotiations with a set of left-wing parties to set up a new ruling coalition. On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tendered his resignation and delivered a national TV address.
The next question will be: Who wants to be prime minister? As leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi would be the natural choice. While the Indian constitution does not forbid a foreign-born citizen from becoming prime minister, Mrs. Gandhi's Italian origin was an election issue. Sonia married Rajiv Gandhi, the son of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Sonia is now a naturalized Indian citizen, and most of the Congress party's expected coalition partners say they would accept her as prime minister. Meanwhile, her son Rahul has won a first term in Parliament.