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India opts for the middle path

A Congress supporter celebrating the win
Congress managed to balance "the middle class and underclass demands"

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

India's voters have defied the pollsters and pundits again.

The latter predicted a neck-and-neck race between the Congress- and BJP-led coalitions. They said that the Third Front of regional and caste-based parties would play a pivotal role in forming the government.

The Communists even spoke about Congress being forced to support such a government.

Then there were the traditional woes of the ruling party - the three previous prime ministers had lost elections after one term.

But Congress bucked every trend and has emerged triumphant in a victory analyst Mahesh Rangarajan calls a "historic moment" in India's democracy.

The victory is emphatic and with the caste-based regional parties suffering setbacks in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India's political landscape suddenly does not look so deeply fractured.

'Vote for harmony'

Voters appear to have backed Congress for pro-farm policies like the $5bn rural work scheme and a waiver of loans for indebted farmers.

On the other hand, five consecutive good monsoons, a booming rural market and pay increases for millions of government workers seem to have swung both the urban and rural voters towards India's Grand Old Party.

Congress supporters
India's political landscape does not look so fractured

Also, as analysts and Congress party workers point out, there have been no major religious riots in the past five years, and so a vote for the party seemed to be a "vote for peace and harmony".

The party performed well in most of the major Indian cities - including a sweep in the capital, Delhi - pointing to its appeal with the burgeoning middle class.

"It was an astute balancing of the middle class and underclass demands that helped the Congress," says Mahesh Rangarajan.

Congress had a crucial revival in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to the Indian parliament and has been a stronghold of caste-based regional parties like the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.

Voters proved predictions about the emergence of Mayawati, the Dalit leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, horribly wrong. She was still ahead but Congress was expected to mop up more than 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, up from nine in 2004.

"The results point to a rejection of lower caste identity politics if it is not accompanied by a concern for all, and a great reward for the social welfare policies of the UPA," says Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of political science at Brown University.

Analysts say Mayawati's failure to romp home in Uttar Pradesh reflects her indifferent performance and her hubris in spending taxpayers money on erecting statues to her all over the state and holding lavish birthday celebrations.

"Indian democracy is at a cusp. No vote bank in the country can be taken for granted," says analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Huge decline

The other highlights have been the near rout of the Communists in the eastern state of West Bengal at the hands of the local Trinamul Congress party in alliance with Congress. The Communists have ruled there without a break for 32 years - and face a stiff test in the next state elections.

It is a vote against ideological, language, caste and class extremism. It is the victory of the middle vote
Ramachandra Guha, historian

A combination of voter fatigue and a growing resistance to efforts by the government to acquire land for industry led to the huge decline of the Communists.

The failure of the Hindu-nationalist BJP reflects the fading appeal of its 81-year-old leader, LK Advani, who analysts say did not click with young voters.

It also proved that the BJP failed to project a credible alternative to Congress, having spent most of the campaign attacking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for being "weak and soft", and backing a candidate whose alleged inflammatory speeches polarised the electorate.

To be fair, the party manage to win in some places where it polarised the religious vote. It did well in Karnataka.

But the overall verdict proves that the Indian voter is essentially "centrist and moderate", says Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Voters may also have been voting for stability: the memories of India witnessing three general elections between May 1996 and October 1999 are still fresh in many minds.

So what does the verdict mean for Mr Singh and the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party?

For one, the diarchy, which has its critics, appears to have been successful.

Mr Singh will be relieved. He will be free to push ahead with more economic reforms, now that he does not have to depend on the support of the Communists to run the government. They were a major ally for most of the last administration.

It will also mean continuity in India's relations with its neighbours and the US.

The civilian nuclear deal with the US, Mr Singh's showcase achievement which angered the Communists, will remain untouched. And, say analysts, the political stature of Mr Singh will also grow.

The 2009 verdict is one that moves India back to the centre.

"It is a vote against ideological, language, caste and class extremism. It is the victory of the middle vote," says historian Ramachandra Guha.



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