Rani Singh is a South Asia analyst and has covered four Indian elections. She is a frequent commentator for US and UK television networks and has reported from all over South Asia, including Pakistan and Kashmir. She specializes in politics, defense and security issues and edits Rani's Report at ranisingh.blogspot.com
In the Indian election results declared by India's Election Commission, the ruling Congress Party alliance has won a far greater number of seats than was expected.
The result, which has taken some by surprise, has already led to some key decisions and a declaration of the need for introspection by opposition groups.
The Lower House of Parliament has 543 seats, and 272 are needed for a majority. Indian politics, historically, was dominated by two parties, but this stranglehold broke with the emergence of a variety of other groups, including those from the left. It hasn't been possible for one group to achieve a majority for nearly two decades, which is why coalition governments -- some weak and short, some strong and longer-lasting -- have become the Indian norm.
This time, though, India has shown a nationwide swing towards continuity and stability.
The Congress-led grouping, the United Progressive Alliance, has won so many seats it will not have to compromise on its principles and can choose a co-operative coalition partner as it forms a new government. The Congress party itself has gained the highest number of seats that any single party has taken in 25 years.
76-year-old Manmohan Singh, who led the Congress party, is the only Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 to be voted back after completing a full five-year term.
PM Manmohan Singh is the architect of India's economic reform which took place in the early 1990s and which led to India now being widely acknowledged as the world's second-fastest growing economy. Uncharismatic, he is seen as gentle and conciliatory, uncorrupted and 'a safe pair of hands.'
He was one of the world leaders to have a bilateral meeting with US President Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in London in April 2009. He was also responsible for the Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2008 which led the left-leaning parties to depart the UPA. Singh's passionate espousal of the deal led to him being seen as a man of conviction. The nuclear agreement is almost certain to hold with the new government.
The Times of India wrote:
The election marked an emphatic endorsement of Manmohan Singh as PM, a triumph of Sonia Gandhi who took the right calls -- from a robust backing of Manmohan as PM to allowing Rahul (Gandhi) to take over from her as the party's main campaigner which, in turn, saw her son come into his own.
The Congress party has the Gandhi family at its heart. Sonia Gandhi, widow of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, is the president and power-broker. In this summary of the runners and the riders of the election, Sonia's son Rahul Gandhi is seen as the heir apparent to Manmohan Singh. His father, his grandmother Indira Gandhi and his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru were all Indian Prime Ministers, and family dynasties still play a part in Indian politics.
Rahul's energetic grassroots campaigning is seen as one reason for the success of his party. More urban youth connected with young leaders like Rahul Gandhi than the BJP's gen-next.
India Today Editor Raj Chengappa said:
We had for the first time a very young generation that is voting in large numbers. I went to a poll booth and I was surprised that almost 50 per cent of the voters were below 25. This is an unusual phenomenon. I think they rooted for Congress.
Congress recently revealed that in the latter stages of campaigning, there was a surge of young voters to their Website. Analysts note that Rahul Gandhi has been able to expand the vote base beyond the Congress Party's traditional strongholds.
The Times of India asked:
Why has Congress done so well? What went right for it? It would appear it was seen as a more sincere party than its rivals -- possibly a result of Manmohan Singh's earnest and honest image and Sonia Gandhi's understated style. It was also seen as a party for the ''aam admi'' (the common man), and the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and loan waiver for indebted farmers made it appear a pro-poor party.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme guarantees one hundred days of employment each year to adult members of any rural household willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage.
Though India's economic growth has been affected by the global economic slowdown, her financial institutions have remained sound. India marks itself out as different from the US and Europe in that her financial sector has not been affected by the downturn and remains healthy.
In an exclusive interview, Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr Rakesh Mohan said:
'Our banks are well capitalized, profitable without exception; the money markets, the securities markets, the foreign exchange markets have all been working absolutely normally.' Dr Mohan added, crucially, 'in the case of the Indian banking system we've had very conscious regulatory and supervision policies to reduce the risk levels.'
Editor Raj Chengappa clarified:
'Rural India voted strongly for development... because the [ruling coalition] had money in their hands; the economic meltdown had not hit [rural dwellers] as much as [those] in urban India.'
Countryside voters made up 65% of the electorate.
Manmohan Singh said, "We have an obligation to the people of India to provide a stable and secular government," underscoring two core themes that helped the Congress retain power in one of the most fiercely fought electoral battles since independence 62 years ago.
Raj Chengappa concurred. 'Their entire focus (was) on development and the economy. Congress has a very strong economic team. Second, they have shunned divisive politics, unlike the BJP.'
The electorate, at 714 million, is more than double the entire population of the United States. India achieved universal adult suffrage for women at the same time as for men, and the lower and middle classes embrace their franchise. Total turnout, up from 58% in 2004, was around 60%, according to the Election Commission.
The opposition alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was roundly routed. This shows a shrinking of support for the opposition as well as for a group of left-wing parties. The Indian media reported that BJP leader, 81-year old L.K. Advani, has said that he wishes to step down though his party states that they have not accepted his resignation.
'There's something for us to learn and unlearn,' said BJP party spokesperson Balbir Punj, as he conceded defeat.
'We had not expected the complete badgering that the Left got in Kerala, thereby, ensuring a very good show by the Congress there,' was the comment of another leader, referring to the southern state of Kerala and in the eastern province of West Bengal where communist parties fared badly, handing the advantage to the Congress camp.
The international media made the state of Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister Mayawati the poster-girl of the election, even touting her as a possible prime minister. The wealthy, diamond-loving heroine of the 'untouchable' class who travels to rallies by helicopter was trounced in her own state by Congress. The 'Third Front' group of parties she leads is still the third largest alliance after the UPA and the NDA, but has lost many seats, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India.
PM Manmohan Singh will formally resign Sunday, April 17, and on Monday April 18, the Indian President Pratibha Patil will commence -- after consulting with her own team of constitutional experts -- the process of deciding the make up of the new government.
She will have a slightly easier task as the electorate has delivered a very decisive mandate to the UPA. Pundits had feared a multi-hued coalition which would have involved frantic negotiations and cross-trading.
PM Manmohan Singh is almost certain to be reinstated, according to his party. He told the media Saturday he has asked Rahul Gandhi to him to join his cabinet as a new entrant.
Another candidate for the new cabinet could be Congress ally Laloo Yadav.
Among the winners of this election, one to watch is former United Nations undersecretary-general Shashi Tharoor, now added to the enlarged number of Congress party MPs who will soon be on their way to New Delhi to take up their seats.