In a surprise upset, India's Congress Party has beaten the party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in national parliamentary elections. The Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, is expected to form a new government and announce a prime minister in the next few days.
Even before all the votes were counted, Congress Party supporters began to celebrate, beating drums, lighting fireworks and dancing in the street outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the party leader.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee formally stepped down, after results showed a shock defeat of the coalition he heads, the National Democratic Alliance.
Leaders from the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its allies have expressed surprise at the outcome. Mr. Vajpayee called the election six months earlier than necessary, after a string of political successes. Earlier this year, India reopened peace talks with neighboring Pakistan, after months of deadlock. India's economy also grew by seven percent last year, making it one of the world's fastest growing.
Hoping to capitalize on those successes, the BJP campaign slogan was India Shining. But analysts say the campaign backfired, because it only highlighted the poverty afflicting millions of rural Indians.
The Congress Party says it is meeting to choose the new prime minister and to plan the new government. Analysts say Mrs. Gandhi, who was born in Italy, is a strong possibility to serve as prime minister. As the widow of the assassinated prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, many Indians regard her as heir to the Gandhi political dynasty. But to others, she is unacceptable, because of her foreign birth.
That might lead to a compromise says Inder Malhotra, a political analyst and the author of a book on the Gandhi family.
"One formula could be that Mrs. Gandhi continues to be the chairperson of the coordination committee of the new coalition that is to be formed," he said. "And, she nominates somebody else as the Congress Party leader, who leads the government. It's too soon to say. "
India is the world's largest democracy. The election took place in five stages over a three-week period, to accommodate the movement of hundreds of polling and security personnel around the country.