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India’s Opposition Congress Party Prepares to Form New Government - 2004-05-14


In India, the opposition Congress Party is getting ready to form the country's next government, after the stunning defeat of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Analysts thought the BJP would win.

Raj Narain, 32, lives in a cramped squatter settlement in the heart of South Delhi, where India's middle classes live in relative affluence.

Mr. Narain says he earns two dollars a day selling yogurt in the slums. He says his life has not improved in decades, and he struggles to bring up his three children.

Raj Narain is one of the millions of people who were not impressed by the defeated Bharatiya Janata Party's high-blitz election campaign, focusing on India's huge economic progress. Called "India Shining," the campaign was the BJP's confident expression that its accomplishments would catapult it back to power. The party was so confident, that it called elections six months early.

The Congress Party campaigned hard against the "India Shining" campaign, saying millions of people in urban slums and poor villages had not benefited from six years of BJP rule.

The tactic worked with voters like Raj Narain, and now the elections are being called an "historic upset."

Analysts say the party, which was written off just days ago, struck the right chord with voters.

Hiranmay Karlekar, editor of Pioneer newspaper, explains what enabled the Congress Party to regain center stage in Indian politics.

?The Congress revival is also a lot to do with some of the negative things with BJP,? Mr. Karlekar said. ?One has been implementation of the reform program, ? particularly the failure to provide a safety net for people who have been rendered unemployed because of the impact of globalization.?

Raj Narain now wonders whether the victorious Congress Party will improve his life, and bring him within reach of consumer goods that flood the glitzy new shopping malls in Indian cities.

Analysts say the Congress Party must now deliver on promises of improving life for the Indian masses.

The party has pledged to press ahead with economic reforms that have brought global attention to Asia's third largest economy.

The elections gave the Congress Party command of only 145 seats in the 545-member house, which means the party is dependent on political allies. Among them are left-leaning parties that did unexpectedly well, winning 62 seats.

Some observers are now concerned that left-leaning parties may exert their influence, and slow economic reforms, which were proceeding with speed under the BJP.

The prospect has made stock markets nervous. But industry leaders, like S.K. Birla, director of the Birla group of industries, are not unduly worried.

?Up to a point, the process may slow down. I do not think that any party of any hue has the capacity to reverse or put a full stop to the process,? Mr. Birla said.

The Congress Party says it is also committed to continuing the peace process with Pakistan, initiated by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But analysts say Mr. Vajpayee's huge personal commitment, which went beyond politics, is something the Congress Party may find hard to replicate. It was a point Mr. Vajpayee took care to stress in his short resignation speech.

?It will remain my lifelong wish to see that we herald a new chapter of peace, cooperation and friendship in South Asia, with the People's Republic of China and with other nations,? Mr. Vajpayee said.

The Congress Party has governed India for more than 40 out of the 56 years since India's independence, but always on its own. For the first time now, say analysts, it must learn the difficult art of coalition politics.

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