M A I N   N E W S

UPA returns to power
Congress sweeps to biggest victory since 1991, touches the 200 mark; Manmohan first PM after Nehru to complete a full term and then return for second
Anita Katyal
Our Political Correspondent

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on Saturday.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh greets Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on Saturday. A Tribune photograph

New Delhi, May 16
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) today raced to an unexpected decisive victory in what was billed as one of the most unpredictable Lok Sabha elections. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was clearly the man of the moment as he scripted history by becoming the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to come back to power after completing a full term in office.

The grand old party did exceptionally well on its own as it crossed the 200 mark while the incumbent ruling combine was comfortably placed at over 250 in the 545-member Lok Sabha. The UPA’s estranged allies like the Left parties, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) were humbled even as the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finished at a low of 112 seats.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal image as a man of learning and integrity and the electorate’s preference for stability proved to be key factors in these elections. Realising that he enjoys a groundswell of goodwill, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi went out of their way to repeatedly project him for the top job, thus converting this election into a Presidential contest. BJP leader LK Advani’s personal attacks against Manmohan Singh only ended up improving his popularity ratings.

The fear of a fractured mandate with disparate small political parties calling the shots at the Centre also appears to have scared the electorate, which has shown a preference for national parties, although nobody is writing off the regional parties.

Given today’s line-up, the Congress is comfortably placed to form the government with its pre-poll allies though it is a few seats short of the majority mark. It no longer requires the Communists or its former partners or even the Samajwadi Party to muster a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. Well aware that it is in a position to call the shots, the Congress has already indicated that it will tap Independent members and smaller like-minded parties like the Janata Dal (SD), Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Assam’s AUDF for support to make up for the shortfall instead of seeking support of the Fourth Front . “Nobody will be able to dictate terms to us this time,” said a jubiliant senior Congress leader.

However, the Congress continued to be soft towards Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, whose Janata Dal (United), swept the state.

Admitting privately that they are more comfortable dealing with Nitish Kumar as he represents the classical Lohia school of thought, Congress leaders said the Bihar leader will have to take a call on whether he wants to continue with his dependence on the Bharatiya Janata Party or branch out on his own.

While attention will turn to the nitty gritty of government formation in the coming days, the Congress was busy savouring its victory today, made possible by its massive gains in states like Kerala, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and its unexpected performance in the other Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YSR Reddy was the real game changer as he was able to improve on his tally of 29 seats even though all other political parties were ranged against him.

“He was able to take on his opponents and buck anti-incumbency primarily because of his government’s pro-poor programmes... there is not a single rural family in the state which has not been a beneficiary of some government programme,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

The party’s surprise comeback in Uttar Pradesh with 21 seats, where the Congress has been in the wilderness for over two decades, has proved to be a real morale booster for the grand old party as it is seen as the beginning of its revival in the Hindi heartland.

What is even more heartening for the Congress is that the party is gradually regaining its old base with the minorities and the upper castes veering towards it. The UP performance is, however, a personal victory for All-India Congress Committee(AICC) general secretary Rahul Gandhi who had argued that isntead of going in for an unequal alliance, the Congress should fight on its own.

In contrast to the Congress, the BJP suffered serious reverses as its tally has plummeted from 138 to 112 seats.

However, all is not lost for the saffron party as it has held its own in Chhattisgarh and improved in Karnataka.

Similarly, the DMK-Congress combine managed to minimize its losses in Tamil Nadu where the rival Jayalalitha-led AIADMK front was projected to sweep the polls banking on the emotive Sri Lankan Tamils issue.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Congress whose leaders admitted that the manner in which the BJP has increased its footprint is a worrying factor. “They have gained in Jharkhand and Bihar, revived in UP and consolidated its position in the south,” remarked a senior Congress leader.



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