India’s Congress party heads for surprise election victory

India’s ruling Congress party looked set to take an unexpectedly decisive general election victory as the 400 million-plus votes cast during the month-long election were counted this morning.

The party defied exit polls and analysts’ predictions, which had indicated a much closer result. With more than 70% of the vote counted the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was set to take more than 250 seats and the opposition alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) forecast to take 160.

In a televised announcement shortly after 1pm in Delhi, Arun Jaitley, a senior official from the BJP, conceded defeat, saying that his party respected the people’s mandate. He refused to speculate immediately on why the BJP lost, saying only: “Some things certainly did go wrong. We will analyse the reasons, and after we have analysed them we will share them with you.”

The Congress party alone, without its allies, could take around 198 seats, according to the CNN-IBN news channel, making this the party’s best performance in decades and confounding analysts’ predictions that regional political formations could prove more important than national parties.

While the UPA had not yet reached the 272 target necessary for a majority in the 543-member parliament, it was expected to make up that shortfall from regional allies without difficulty.

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was expected to remain at the head of government, but the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, was credited by numerous politicians for the part he played in the surprising victory, having spent 35 straight days on a helicopter tour of the country.

There were calls from some party members for him to be promoted immediately to prime minister, but senior party officials have consistently reiterated that Singh will continue to be the party’s candidate for prime minister.

A sea of supporters dressed in white gathered outside the home of the Congress party leader, Sonia Gandhi, setting off fireworks, beating drums and waving posters of her son, Rahul, and his sister, Priyanka, who was also an energetic campaigner during the run-up to the vote.

Preliminary analysis of what motivated this stronger endorsement of the Congress party – a vote of support that may see the party able to form a more powerful government than it brought together in 2004 – focused on the confident handling of the economy by Singh, a former World Bank economist whose supervision of India’s finances has led to five years of strong growth during his tenure. In recent months India has been touched by the fallout from the global economic crisis, but the impact has been considerably less severe than elsewhere. Financial analysts expect the Indian stock market to rally as a result of the election news when it opens on Monday.

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