The opposition Congress party and its allies scored unexpectedly strong gains in India’s Parliament elections as the nail-biting finale to the polls seemed to be heading for an upset.
Congress was so confident it claimed victory after only three hours of vote-counting and insisted its leader, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, would be the next prime minister following the party’s campaign championing the country’s poor it claims are left out of India’s new prosperity.
“Congress has won the election under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi,” party spokeswoman Ambika Soni told New Delhi Television news.
A party leader in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s coalition called the early trends a setback that were “totally against our expectations”.
Just short of conceding defeat, Pramod Mahajan, general secretary of Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said the governing coalition may not attempt to form a government if it does not get a clear majority of 272 seats in the 543-member lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.
“If we are not 200% confident of 272, I don’t think the BJP is likely to stake a claim,” he said.
“Indians have a right to choose. If they have chosen, she has a right to rule.”
During the campaign, Mahajan had called Gandhi’s Indian-born children “foreigners” and had stoked the debate over whether a foreign-born citizen should rule India.
Gandhi, who has pushed for a secular India in contrast to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist message, is the widow of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi.
Their two children, Rahul and Priyanka, are up-and-coming politicians and Rahul expects to be elected to Parliament today.
Outside Sonia Gandhi’s residence, supporters were celebrating, beating drums, setting off firecrackers and chanting slogans.
During the initial hours of ballot-counting, there were seesawing reports from the TV stations, with some saying the trends showed Congress unexpectedly ahead and others showing Vajpayee’s coalition slightly ahead.
But even if Vajpayee’s group wins the most votes, it could lose its control of Parliament. Leftist parties, which have promised to support a Congress-led government, also appeared to be doing well and they could give the opposition the edge it would need to take power.
Pran Chopra, a political analyst, said: “It looks like a group led by the Congress will make the government. Quite likely, but not certain yet, the government will be led by Sonia Gandhi.”
The benchmark index of the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Sensex, opened 3.3% lower, at 5179.99 points, in early trading. Within an hour, however, stocks had recovered to hit 5339.81 points, a drop of just 0.34%.
The NDA had called elections six months early, banking on the popularity of Vajpayee, his peace proposals with rival Pakistan and a booming economy.
The early trends suggested an anti-incumbency vote by Indians disgruntled over what they see as the failure of the government’s economic reforms and new prosperity to trickle down to the poor.
With the first official seats reported, Congress and its allies were leading Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party 36 seats to 21, from the 539 constituencies being counted. Repolling was being held in four other constituencies, due to violence and snags with electronic voting machines.
New Delhi Television news – reporting trends from 425 constituencies, said Congress and its allies would likely win 179, compared to 164 for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governing coalition, and 82 for others.
Most exit polls following India’s three-week general elections indicated that neither side would win a mandate, leading to a split Parliament and days of back-room bargaining by both sides to secure enough allies to gain a majority.