Sunday, May 17, 2009

India 13: Result

The Congress Party will lead the next coalition government in India.

As I described here, in the first few elections after India's independence in 1947, Congress routinely won a large overall majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. By contrast, the almost-completed vote count for this year's election shows Congress winning only 206 of the 543 seats. However, with the increasing scattering of votes among small parties, that gives them a significant lead over their rivals.

The United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of parties led by Congress, has won a total of 260 seats. Observers expect Congress to easily be able to find enough coalition partners to constitute a majority. India's political system resembles that of its former colonial ruler, Britain, in that the leader (or the leader's designee) of either the majority party, or the leading party in a majority coalition, becomes prime minister.

That means that Manmohan Singh will continue in that job. The Congress Party's leader, Sonia Gandhi, has preferred Singh as prime minister, since the party returned to power in 2004. Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul Gandhi, 38, is expected to take over at some point, from the 76-year-old Singh. Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which led India's coalition government from 1998 to 2004, won 116 seats. With other parties in its National Democratic Alliance, it will have at least 159 seats. The BJP has, to some extent, succeeded in establishing a two-party system in India, which was lacking during the country's first half-century. But it continues to find it difficult to break Indians of their habit of returning Congress to power.

A coalition of smaller parties, called the Third Front, proved themselves not ready for prime time, with only 78 seats.

The result could mean that economic reforms, which were begun by a Congress-led government almost two decades ago, will be continued, and perhaps strengthened. After previous elections, the party needed to reach far to the left, including to communists, to build a coalition. That limited its ability to extend free-market policies. With its relatively strong result this time, Congress can bypass the communists, and construct a more centrist coalition.

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