Why India's ruling party triumphed

Despite economic downturn, voters gave the Congress Party a surprisingly strong mandate.

By , Correspondent

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    Congress Party supporters celebrated the party's election victory Saturday outside the New Delhi residence of leader Sonia Gandhi.
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The political coalition led by India's Congress Party is set to return to power after a stunning victory Saturday after monthlong parliamentary elections.

The results – in which the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 262 of 543 seats – flew in the face of most experts' predictions of a hung parliament that would result in an unstable government.

Manmohan Singh, an economist praised for his clean reputation, is expected to be sworn in for his second term as prime minister, only the second in India's history to win two consecutive full terms in office.

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The election results, analysts say, pave the way for more effective governance at a time when India's economy is slowing and the country is confronted by a perilous security situation in neighboring countries.

"The election has led to a stable government that will not have to succumb endlessly to the irritations of coalition politics and the threat of a mid-term breakdown," says Swapan Dasgupta, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

Winning votes despite downturn

The emphatic victory of the UPA is remarkable, says leading economist Swaminathan Aiyar, given that previous elections reflect that Indian voters "usually throw out 80 percent of all incumbent governments, especially in bad economic times."

The global recession has hit India hard. India's GDP growth has slipped from a high of 9 percent in 2007 to 7 percent last year. Industrial production has slumped into negative growth. Exports fell for the seventh consecutive month in April, down 33 percent from the year before.

Mr. Aiyar attributes the Congress Party's success to the rising "prosperity in rural areas, which [make up] 70 percent of the population."

Agriculture, the economic mainstay, has grown at an average rate of 4.5 percent, the fastest ever.

"People have voted for good governance," says Arundhati Dhuru, a Lucknow-based adviser to the Right to Food Campaign.

She points out that the UPA won a big chunk of rural votes because it implemented the landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), an ambitious antipoverty project that took employment opportunities to the rural hinterland. Launched in 2005, the program guarantees one member from every rural Indian family at least 100 days of employment.

NREGA has been plagued by corruption with repeated instances of funds being pilfered by implementation officers.

"This is a massive, very technical project implemented across hundreds of districts," Ms. Dhuru says. "It will take at least a decade to streamline its implementation. But it is a good start."

Ms. Dhuru points out that there is anecdotal evidence of the slowing pace of rural-to-urban migration in some districts because of NREGA. [Editor’s note: The original version misidentified Ms. Dhuru.]

More freedom to pursue reform

But a key expectation from Mr. Singh is to bring about significant land reforms, which he couldn't deliver in his previous term because of opposition from allies such as the Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Front. Now the UPA is well positioned to form a government – it needs only 10 more seats – without the support of such allies.

During the economic boom in recent years, India has developed a large appetite for industrialization. Multinational companies have made a beeline here, eager to pen factories. In its previous term, the UPA approved the creation of 250 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) – Chinese-style tax-free industrial enclaves to promote trade and exports – across the country.

But it faced a major hurdle: land procurement. In a country where agriculture is the mainstay, the country has faced a major dilemma of how to divert agricultural land to industries.

The Communist Party, which has held power in West Bengal for three decades, suffered sharp electoral defeats in this election, mainly because of its effort to divert farmland to allow Tata, a major Indian conglomerate, to build a manufacturing plant for its automobile, the Nano. The factory provoked a violent backlash from farmers, and eventually was relocated elsewhere in India.

Congress could face a similar backlash in other states where SEZs are coming up. But the party has assured it will initiate land reforms in this term.

"This government will push for reforms," Mr. Kamal Nath, the Commerce Minister in the previous reign of UPA, told a private news channel Saturday.

Trouncing its main rival

In this election, the Congress trounced the other major national party, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party. The BJP-led alliance won just 160 votes, which analysts say reflect a mandate against communal politics. The party had projected Narendra Modi, the controversial chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, as a future candidate for prime minister, a move that proved to be costly, analysts say. Mr. Modi is accused of orchestrating anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, which resulted in the killing of more than 1,200 people.

"This election, powered by 600 million voters, shows that the politics of aspiration has won over the politics of grievance," Shekhar Gupta, wrote in a front-page column in The Indian Express. "For anybody who built a campaign on negativism, prejudice, victimhood and vengeance, has been demolished."

The UPA is also given credit for forging a nuclear-energy deal with the United States after multiple difficult rounds of negotiations, despite not being a signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"The nuclear deal was the biggest foreign policy success of UPA in its previous term," says Mr. G. Parthasarthy, a New Delhi-based foreign policy expert. "It changed India's status in the world as a nuclear pariah."

Still, many foreign policy issues still trouble the country, including the conflicts facing its neighbors – from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Sri Lanka – which could have dangerous ramifications here.

"I am glad there will now be a stable government in New Delhi to handle this situation," says Mr. Parthasarthy.

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