Ruling Congress sweeps to victory in India election

The governing Congress party-led alliance was headed to a resounding victory Saturday in the monthlong national elections, media reports said, setting off celebrations and claims of success by party leaders. ''We will sweep the election. The Congress and its allies will form the government,'' Congress leader Motilal Vora told the Press Trust of India news agency. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the country's other main party, fell just short of conceding defeat, with top party official Arun Jaitley saying: ''We accept the people's verdict. ... Certainly something did go wrong.'' News channels called the election in Congress' favor based on more than 70 percent of votes counted. The CNN-IBN channel said the Congress-led alliance could win 254 seats in the 543-seat Parliament, and the BJP-led alliance could take 156. It projected that the Congress party alone -- without the support of its coalition allies -- would take 198 seats, putting it far ahead of all other parties. The NDTV channel gave the Congress coalition 250 seats, with 160 for the BJP and its allies. Other channels predicted similar results. If counting trends continue the same way it would be a clear victory for the Congress coalition -- but would still leave it short of the 272 seats needed to govern alone and would require the support of other parties. However, the results appeared far better for Congress than most everyone expected. For months, polls and political observers have predicted that neither of the country's two main parties would emerge a clear winner, forcing an unstable and unwieldy coalition that could conceivably include dozens of smaller parties. Congress ''seems to have the upper hand,'' said Venkaiah Naidu, a BJP leader. The ''Third Front,'' an alliance of communist, regional and caste-based parties that had banded together -- and which for a time had been seen as a wild card that could emerge with immense power -- appeared to have done poorly. Most news stations predicted they would win less than 80 seats. As results came in, celebrations erupted outside the Congress party headquarters. Party workers set off fireworks and danced in the streets carrying posters of party leader Sonia Gandhi. ''We have won a thumping majority,'' Congress activist Parag Jain said outside the party offices, in a leafy, elegant south New Delhi neighborhood. ''Successful rule begins and ends with Congress and the Gandhi family.'' The Congress party has long said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, an economist and technocrat who helped open India's economy nearly 20 years ago, would return to power if it won. But the election appeared to also be a clear victory for Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, who emerged as a key strategist during the campaign and became the party's most visible face. While a relative political newcomer, he has been increasingly viewed as a future prime minister. Rahul, 38, is a scion of India's most powerful family -- the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The family was closely allied to the pacifist icon Mohandas Gandhi, though they are not related. The results would still require Congress to put together a coalition. India has been ruled by coalition governments for most of the last two decades, including the current coalition led by the Congress party. According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2. The long, grueling campaign season produced few central issues that resonated across the wildly diverse nation of 1.2 billion people and 714 million eligible voters. Total voter turnout was approximately 60 percent, the national election commission said, up slightly from 58 percent in the last national vote in 2004.

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