India’s voters, 420m of them, have delivered a humbling lesson in democratic wisdom that could be just what their barely governable country needs. Faced with the fall-out from the financial crisis and a massive backlog of structural reforms, a tense stand-off with arch-rival Pakistan and a string of home-grown insurgencies, along with communal, caste and regional polarisation, the electorate has chosen decisively.
The government of Manmohan Singh has triumphed beyond its supporters’ wildest expectations, to give India a stable and secular majority. This is the first time since 1977 that Congress, the party of independence, has been returned for a second successive term.
With results not quite complete, the Congress-led coalition was on course to win 260 seats – within reach of the 272 it needs for a majority in the 543-seats Lok Sabha, and 80 seats up on its score in 2004.
More broadly, the results reveal Indian democracy’s ability to push back against three profoundly centrifugal forces that have made big advances over the past three decades: caste-based populism; sectarian Hindu revivalism; and regional parties with a habit of holding the national interest hostage.
The outgoing coalition of 13 parties (until last year with external Communist support), got gridlocked on reform. Mr Singh now has a mandate for change: above all to privatise, reduce barriers to investment and remove wasteful subsidies that are crippling public finances. He will also be better placed to pursue detente with Islamabad at a dangerous moment for Pakistan.
While Mr Singh, a man of great intellect and integrity who started opening up India’s underperforming command economy nearly two decades ago, deserves credit, this result is above all a triumph for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Sonia Gandhi, widow of the assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, has confounded her critics by presiding over the relaunch of Congress. Their children, Rahul and Priyanka – grandchildren of Indira Gandhi and great-grandchildren of Nehru – have assisted at its rebirth, above all across the populous “cow belt” of north and central India.
Rahul Gandhi’s gamble of fighting alone in Uttar Pradesh – a lost Congress bastion with 80 seats and 166m people – paid off. So too did more assured alliances with like-minded parties in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where the Communists were decimated after 32 years in power.
Congress has confirmed an emerging pattern: national parties, hitherto in eclipse, seem able to elect more MPs in their own right the more coherent their pre-electoral alliances. That may not apply, however, to the Bharatiya Janata party, voted out in 2004 and voted down badly in this contest.
Modernisers in the BJP could not cover up the stock-in-trade of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian bigotry of its flourishing Hindu supremacist wing. The party’s security hawks overplayed their hand after last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The danger now is that they retrench behind a more undiluted Hindutva or “Hinduness” – whereas what India needs is a reforming party of the centre-right.