Defying almost all predictions of a tight national election, a hung parliament and weeks of political horse-trading, hundreds of millions of Indian voters have given the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his centrist United Progressive Alliance an unexpected and surprisingly decisive victory.
The winning margin was so large that Singh’s Congress party and his closest allies, with 260 seats and two races undecided, came close to a 272-seat majority in the 543-seat parliament. The assumption that India, with its many divisive communities and ideologies, was doomed to weak coalition governments for the foreseeable future was swept away in ballot boxes across the country.
What Indian voters did not do is as important as what they did in this national election, in which about 60 percent of 700 million eligible voters turned out, according to preliminary figures.
Indian voters did not heed the rallying call of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, not even after Muslim terrorists (albeit mostly Pakistanis) attacked hotels and other targets in Mumbai. L.K. Advani, the BJP leader known for his hard-line, disruptive Hindu campaigns against Muslim historical sites in the 1990s, was making his last effort, at age 81, to lead a national government. His vision for India was soundly rejected.
Voters did not flock to politics based on caste, though the system remains strong in political calculations. Mayawati Kumari, leader of the Bahujan Samaj, a party of Dalits (formerly untouchables) who joined a “third front” of assorted other parties, hoping to ride to victory on the votes of the disposed and marginalized who number in the hundreds of millions, found her support reduced even in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, where she is chief minister. Only a few weeks ago, not a few political commentators thought she had a shot at the prime ministership in Delhi.
Voters did not bolster the more insular political left, which included in its ranks strong opponents of Indian economic reforms and the nuclear agreement with the United States that opened the door to American technology despite India’s refusal to sign safeguard treaties against nuclear weapons proliferation. In West Bengal, where a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) has been in power for more than thirty years, leftist candidates for parliament apparently took a beating from the Trinamul Congress, led by a feisty independent woman, Mamata Banerjee, who supports the mainline Congress party at the national level. In a statement on Saturday, the CPI(M) acknowledged that it and other parties of the left “have suffered a major setback in these elections. This necessitates a serious examination of the reasons for the Party’s poor performance.”
Voters, many of them young people looking for change in a polticial landscape of old-timers, did not dismiss Prime Minister Singh, a soft-spoken economist who is 76 and not in robust health. But it is no secret that Singh may be holding a place for Rahul Gandhi, who is 38, and who won a parliamentary seat handily in this election and is likely to join the prime minister’s cabinet. Rahul’s family lineage includes three former prime ministers: his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru; his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and his murdered father, Rajiv Gandhi.
Voters did not choose confrontation with neighbors. Prime Minister Singh has lowered the tone of rhetoric against Pakistan on numerous occasions and is remembered for his statesmanlike meetings with the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. In the Tamil-speaking southern state of Tamil Nadu, politicans were not able to disrupt voting in protest against the Indian government’s refusal to intervene in the Sri Lankan army’s final push against the Tamil Tigers. In a twist of fate, on the day the Indian votes were counted, the government of Sri Lanka was announcing that the war against the Tigers was effectively over.
Finally, in a country with huge economic, social, health and environmental problems, voters did not split their votes regionally in ways that could have paralyzed any federal government trying to hold together fractious political coalitions with no common policies or visions.
People anywhere in the developing world, given a free election, prove over and over how how good their instincts are and how shrewdly they vote for what a country needs. For some, their choices get tragically overturned. It happened in Cambodia in 1993. It happened in Zimbabwe last year. It won’t happen in India. Losers have stepped aside to do their polticial post-mortems, concessions have been gracious. A new government will begin work next week.