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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Forget charisma, forget hype
Sir Mark Tully
By Mark Tully
Former BBC India correspondent

India is still coming to terms with the shock victory of the Congress Party in the general elections. Former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully looks at the lessons to be learned.

Congress supporters play music
Despite the fanfare this election was not about personalities

Indian voters have confounded the wisdom of the world.

They have rejected the prevalent trend in economics - the economic liberalisation that gives as much freedom as possible to private enterprise.

Elections, we are told, now inevitably turn into presidential contests where personalities, not politics, count.

The right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP's attempt to promote their Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the politician Indians could trust flopped.

But it was not the charisma of Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which won the day for her.

The modern media tactics of the BJP backfired, and the opinion pollsters have mud all over their faces.

Local issues

Two weeks travelling during the campaign taught me that this general election was going to be a series of local elections.

An itinerant village blacksmith, who knows the art of keeping in with the locals, told me he had to change his politics at each village he went to.

Congress posters
Congress has been swept to power on a tide of discontent

Nowhere in the countryside did I find anyone who believed their India was "shining", as the BJP claimed in a government-funded advertising campaign.

That slogan will undoubtedly return to haunt the BJP for many years.

Sonia Gandhi deserves all the credit she is getting for her acumen in deciding to pour scorn on "India Shining".

She has been courageous and resilient in fighting on when almost everyone, including many of her party colleagues, believed she was a no-hoper.

She has held the Congress Party together in the eight dark years since it was last in power.

But she will be mistaken if she thinks these results mean India has turned back to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Mixed messages

The results show that the performance of state governments influenced voters, not concerns about the central government.

Pollsters and journalists were convinced the rapturous welcome given to Sonia's son Rahul and daughter Priyanka in Uttar Pradesh would revive the Congress's fortunes in India's most populous state.

But its tally of seats in Uttar Pradesh did not even get into double figures.

The socialist Samajwadi Party believes its remarkable success in Uttar Pradesh is due to their Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, fulfilling his promise to provide electricity for 14 hours a day.

But in a general election which is a series of local elections there are bound to be exceptions to every rule.

Bucking the trend

Laloo Prasad Yadav, the leader of the ruling party in India's most lawless state, Bihar, bucked the trend to punish parties which have failed to provide a government that delivers.

Hardliners line L K Advani may try to take BJP further to the right

No one could put his success down to a well-run and effective government.

Sonia Gandhi knows from the success of her attack on "India Shining" that village India is no longer prepared to be ignored, and her colleagues are already promising this government will concentrate on the rural economy.

But promising and implementing are different.

Congress will be no more successful in satisfying villagers this time than its previous governments have been unless India's corrupt colonial administrative system is drastically reformed.

Lessons to learn

That is a lesson the BJP should have learnt.

In the aftermath of this election it is in danger of making another serious error.

The setback for Gujarat's notoriously hard-line BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi should warn his party against following the precedent of reacting to electoral setbacks by putting its demand for a Hindu India back at the top of the agenda.

There is a lesson for the world too.

Unless trickle down economics trickle down a lot faster they are not going to be accepted by the majority of Indians, and I dare say the majority of poor elsewhere.

Economists may rave about India's fast GDP growth rate but until the economy of every Indian grows that is not going to win elections.




India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

Cabinet members Old faces return
Gandhi family loyalists back in from the cold, but no fresh blood in cabinet.


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