, NEW DELHI, May 17 – India’s Congress Party basked in its best electoral showing for decades, after steering its ruling alliance to a second term in office with a resounding win over its Hindu nationalist rivals.
"King Cong!" ran the front page headline in the Asian Age newspaper, which joined the rest of the media in admitting it was caught out by the unexpected size of the party’s election victory.
Confounding expectations of a close result and a fractured parliament, the Congress-led alliance fell just short of the 272 seats needed for an absolute majority — a mandate nobody had predicted when voting began last month.
With some results still being counted, the alliance was expected to win around 255 seats, with the centre-left Congress party alone taking 200 — its best performance since 1991.
In the process it trounced its main rival, the opposition bloc led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which was projected to win just 160 seats.
It also saw off its erstwhile communist partners, who had abandoned the ruling coalition last year in protest over a nuclear deal with the United States.
"The people have rejected both extremes — the left and the right," said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political analyst and author of a book on Indian coalition politics.
India has become used to unwieldy coalition governments which expend an inordinate amount of energy on simply staying together and not enough, critics say, on the job of policy implementation.
With such a commanding victory, the alliance will have no difficulty picking up the spare seats it needs to ensure a stable majority and will not be beholden to other groups.
Senior alliance leaders met Sunday to formulate strategy and to choose which, if any, parties it might approach about forming a government.
"We had some pre-poll allies who will definitely stay with us, and the party will discuss whether it needs any post-poll ally," said senior Congress leader Rajiv Shukla.
The victory means a second term for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, whose calm, pragmatic persona appealed to voters looking for political stability.
"Singh Still King" was the headline in the Hindustan Times above a picture of a beaming prime minister, who called on Saturday for all "secular" parties to join hands in a "stable, strong, purposeful government."
The media voiced a sense of public relief Sunday that the election verdict had been so clear cut.
"Finally, a Free Hand," was the headline of the Economic Times, which hailed what it saw as a landmark result.
"The people have spoken and spoken decisively: voting out confusion, voting in clarity, voting out schism, voting in development," the newspaper said.
"2009 may just be the beginning of India’s century — a year when India dumps its old baggage and looks to the future with humility, unity and hope," it added.
Singh’s new government faces numerous challenges both at home and abroad.
After five successive years of near-double digit growth that lent the country the international clout it has long sought, the Indian economy has been hit by the global downturn.
And there are major security concerns over growing instability in South Asia, particularly in arch-rival Pakistan, with whom relations plunged to a new low following last year’s bloody militant attack on Mumbai.
Many newspapers on Sunday chose to focus on the contribution made to the Congress victory by Rahul Gandhi, the son of party president Sonia Gandhi and many people’s choice to succeed Singh as prime minister.
Gandhi, 38, was widely credited with energising the party and bringing out the all-important youth vote.
"Ra-Ra Rahul" ran the headline in the Mail Today, while the Economic Times celebrated the "new face of Congress" and chose an image of Rahul for its front page rather than his mother or Singh.
There is speculation that Singh might step down after two years to allow Rahul to follow his father Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother Indira Gandhi and his great-grandfather Jawarhalal Nehru into the prime minister’s office.