Why India's Government Lost

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DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AP

VICTORY DANCE: Congress party supporters celebrate in New Delhi

There's an undeniably romantic allure to the notion that India's election result marks the ordained resurrection of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Its improbable return to power, atop a messy and probably fragile coalition of the Congress Party was led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of slain former Prime Minister Rajiv, who was son of the legendary prime minister Indira Gandhi (also assassinated), herself daughter of the country's legendary first prime minister, Jawarahalal Nehru, the father of modern India. As if to highlight the dynastic allure of her party, Sonia had her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka play leading roles in the campaign — she had always made clear that her reluctant sojourn into politics was at best temporary, and it was widely assumed she was simply keeping her late husband's seat warm for one of their children.

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But India is a modern democracy — with the world's largest electorate — not a tribal society in the thrall of some famous chieftain and his progeny. As powerful as the Gandhi name may be in the symbolic language of Indian political advertising, the defeat of the Hindu-nationalist government of Atal Behari Vajpayee's BJP had a lot more to do with the economy. By many measures, that's a rising star, with growth rates and a booming tech sector that make it the toast of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Hence Vajpayee's decision to call an early election, advised by his handlers that he would surf the crest of the economic good times his liberalization policies had produced. "India is shining" was the slogan chosen by the BJP to encapsulate the message that Vajpayee had brought economic achievements unparalleled in India's history.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the refracted glow of the high-tech palaces of Bangalore and Hyderabad never reached the rural villages and urban slums where 80 percent of the population continues to live in grinding poverty. The rewards of globalization and India's emergence as a high-tech powerhouse have been enjoyed only by a tiny percentage of Indians. As a Goldman Sachs report recently noted, India is home to one third of the world's software engineers and one quarter of its undernourished population. And for the impoverished majority, the message of a "Shining India" rang hollow, at best, or worse, sounded like rich folks showing gloating over their prosperity in the presence of the wretched multitudes. It was hardly surprising that the BJP changed tack just weeks before voting, talking less about the "Shining" than about the need for continuity and stability. But nobody — not the BJP, nor Congress, nor most of the pundits in the land that invented the term — had estimated the depth of popular anger. And that translated into an anti-incumbent rage that Americans might express in the slogan, "Throw the bums out!"

The strongest evidence that this was a rebellion against incumbents rather than an endorsement of the Congress Party's own policies came in the state of Karnataka, whose capital Bangalore is considered the epicenter of India's high-tech boom. There, the BJP won handsomely — the incumbent, of course, was a Congress man. Congress also lost its control of Kerala province, not to the BJP but to the Communists. Indeed, the parties of the socialist Left made their best showing in more than a decade.

And it's on the support of that socialist Left on which Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party will have to depend to muster a governing coalition. But Mrs. Gandhi made clear on Friday that the economic liberalization program overseen by Vajpayee was, in fact, launched over a decade ago by her husband, and her government would continue on the same track of opening India to the world economy. She may, of course, have been anxious to reassure India's stock market, which dropped to a four-year low on the news of her victory, but Congress is committed to a broadly similar economic program as the BJP had been. Commitment to economic liberalization may put a strain on relations with the socialist parties, suggesting that Gandhi's party may find its room for maneuver somewhat limited by the competing claims of coalition allies and international markets. And if discontent over rural poverty had brought down the BJP, it could do the same to their successors.

For the BJP, the defeat may mark the end of an era. The Hindu-nationalist party had emerged as a major player on the Indian political stage in the early '90s by stoking the sectarian passions that led to successive waves of Hindu-Muslim violence. Vajpayee, however, always represented the gentler, more mainstream and statesmanlike face of a movement rooted in ethnic demagoguery in contrast to the relentlessly secular politics of Congress. As prime minister, he proved to be a sober, popular and widely respected statesman who navigated India through some of its most difficult crises. Indeed, he managed to avoid a potentially catastrophic war with Pakistan and turn relations between the two countries onto a peace track.

But Vajpayee is 80 years old, and is unlikely to be the BJP leader in the next election if the new government sees out its full term. Many of his natural heirs lost their seats in the electoral drubbing, and some party leaders are already indicating a need to return to sectarian demagoguery as the path back to power. To be sure, being part of the governing coalition had a restraining effect on the more extremist elements in the Hindu nationalist movement over the past six years, who may now feel a greater freedom to pursue communal confrontations over issues such as Ayodhya, where Hindu nationalists a decade ago destroyed a mosque, and have tried ever since to build a Hindu temple atop its remains. And also in Gujarat, scene of protracted communal bloodshed two years ago. With Congress in power and the BJP looking to make a comeback, it's a safe bet that a government led by Sonia Gandhi's party will face some tricky decisions not only on the economy, but also over how to manage communal tensions stoked by Hindu nationalist provocateurs. They'll take courage from the fact that the BJP lost its grip on Gujarat, which the party captured on back of a wave of communal violence in 1995, marking its emergence as a national contender. But a Congress-led government may still find itself refereeing plenty of trouble on the streets.

Sonia Gandhi's entry into politics five years ago was widely viewed as an attempt to avert the total collapse of the Congress Party's fortunes, and prepare the way for one of her children to assume their father's mantle. The Prime Minister's office has suddenly become available, unexpectedly early, long before 33-year-old Rahul, just elected to parliament for the first time, is ready. She may not have anticpated it, but Sonia may now be forced to take the top job herself. Given the difficulty of altering the economic circumstances that ended Vajpayee's tenure, the top job may be harder to hold than it was to get.