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Sunday, May 17, 2009

India's 2009 general election delivers a surprise outcome

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Contrary to exit poll findings and widespread expectations of a closely fought race, India's ruling Congress Party - formally the Indian National Congress - and its allies won a clear victory in the general election held in April and May of this year, emerging well ahead of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In all, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 261 of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha - the lower house of India's bicameral Parliament - and came within eleven seats of an absolute parliamentary majority, while the BJP-headed National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured only 157 and the Third Front - composed of leftist and regional parties - captured 80 seats. Meanwhile, the new Fourth Front also fared poorly, obtaining just 27 seats, while the remaining 18 seats went to other parties.

The Election Commission of India has 2009 parliamentary election results available here.

Members of the Lok Sabha are elected in single-member constituencies by the first-past-the-post system used in parliamentary elections in the U.K., India's erstwhile colonial ruler. However, unlike in Britain, no single party has won an overall parliamentary majority in a general election in India since 1984, when Congress - which at the time had ruled India for all but three years since the attainment of independence in 1947 - won a record landslide victory, following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; since 1989, Congress has been in and out of office, while BJP has emerged as a formidable rival to the Congress Party. In the meantime, India, which previously had a multi-party system with one dominant party - namely Congress - developed a highly fractious party system characterized by a proliferation of regional parties, which stands in stark contrast with the two-party (or at least two-party dominant) systems of other countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, such as the U.K., the U.S. and (to a lesser degree) Canada.

Nonetheless, the outcome of this year's election, in which Congress won 206 seats (up from 145 in 2004) constitutes the best showing of any party since 1991, when a wave of sympathy following the assassination of then-Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi (Indira's son) in the middle of a general election allowed the party to capture 232 seats in the Lok Sabha. Conversely, BJP had its worst result since 1991, although the party remains by far the second largest in India.

The election was also a major defeat for the Third Front: the Communist Party of India (Marxist; CPM) suffered a crushing defeat in its traditional stronghold of West Bengal, while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati Kumari, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state - failed to make an impact outside its home base. Moreover, Congress made a major comeback in Uttar Pradesh, capturing 21 of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats, up from just nine in 2004 and one more than the twenty won by BSP, which seeks to represent the lower-caste Dalits, previously known as the "untouchables;" Congress' gains in Uttar Pradesh came largely at the expense of the Samajwadi Party (SP) - the Fourth Front's largest party - which lost twelve of its thirty-five seats in the northern state.

The UPA has held power since 2004, when Congress narrowly prevailed over BJP, which had been in office since 1999. After Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi - the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi - declined an offer to become India's head of government, Manmohan Singh formed a minority coalition government with outside support from leftist parties. Singh had previously served as finance minister in the 1991-96 Congress Party government of P.V. Narasimha Rao, implementing a number of measures that liberalized India's economy (until then tightly controlled by the state) and paved the way for its subsequent rapid growth. Despite the global economic crisis, India has the world's second-fastest growing economy; however, widespread poverty remains a major problem.

Although UPA remains just short of an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, it is expected that Congress and its allies will remain in office, in light of their unexpectedly strong election showing.