NEW DELHI – The ruling Congress party swept to a resounding victory Saturday in India's mammoth national elections, defying expectations as it brushed aside the Hindu nationalist opposition and a legion of ambitious smaller parties.
The strong showing by the party, which is dominated by the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, laid to rest fears of an unstable, shaky coalition heading the South Asian giant at a time when many of it neighbors are plagued by instability, civil war and rising extremism.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared victory, telling reporters that voters had given the Congress party-led coalition a "massive mandate."
The left-of-center Congress, which has long tried to balance free market reforms with a vow to protect the downtrodden in this country of 1.2 billion people, wants a "stable, strong government which is committed to secular values," he said.
The results left the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the country's other main party, vowing a period of introspection after they failed to capitalize on the economic uncertainty and increased turmoil in Pakistan, India's longtime rival.
"We will analyze these results in detail," said Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader conceding defeat. "The BJP accepts the mandate of the people of India with all humility."
With most votes counted, the Election Commission said the Congress-led alliance had won — or was leading in — races for 254 seats in the 543-seat Parliament. The BJP alliance came up short with 153. The Congress party alone, without the support of its coalition allies, had won or was leading in 204 seats, putting it far ahead of all other parties.
While the results were a clear victory for the Congress coalition it still leaves it short of the 272 seats needed to govern alone and will require the support of other parties. India has been ruled by coalition governments for most of the last two decades.
For months, polls and political observers had predicted that neither of the country's two main parties would emerge a clear winner, forcing an unstable and unwieldy coalition that could have conceivably included dozens of smaller parties.
Analysts said that Congress — which posted the best results by an individual party in nearly two decades — reaped the rewards of dramatic economic growth during their last term and a series of high-profile pro-poor programs.
"It's not just because it oversaw four years of nine percent growth. What has probably helped was that its agenda was one of inclusive growth," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi.
That perception also saw Congress make deep inroads into the base of their former allies, the Communist parties — a result welcomed by business leaders who said it would enable India to embrace economic reforms as it faces the global downturn.
The communists, a traditional power in Indian politics, had supported Congress for much of the previous term, but broke ties over the Indian-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, the cornerstone of warmer relations between New Delhi and Washington.
Until their departure they repeatedly frustrated economic reforms that would have allowed India to further open up its economy.
Venu Srinivasan, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said Congress' re-election would provide welcome stability and continuity, calling on the party to ensure reforms are "fast tracked."
President Barack Obama congratulated India on its "historic national elections," a White House statement said Saturday.
"By successfully completing the largest exercise of popular voting in the world, the elections have strengthened India's vibrant democracy and upheld the values of freedom and pluralism that make India an example for us all," it said.
While the results marked the success of the government's policies, it also heralded the next chapter in the country's deep ties to its most powerful political dynasty.
The Congress party has long said that Singh, 76, an economist and technocrat who helped open India's economy nearly 20 years ago, would return to power if it won. But the election was also a clear victory for party chief Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, who emerged as a key strategist during the campaign and became the party's most visible face.
While a relative political newcomer, he has been increasingly viewed as a future prime minister. "This is the beginning of the real rise to power of Rahul Gandhi," said Rangarajan, the analyst.
Rahul, 38, is a scion of India's most powerful family — the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The family was closely allied to the pacifist icon Mohandas Gandhi, though they are not related.
The election also scuttled the ambitions of the "Third Front," an alliance of regional and caste-based parties that had banded together — and which for a time had been seen as a wild card that could emerge with immense power.
Among these was Mayawati, who had made clear her ambition to be India's first low-caste politician.
Mayawati, a Dalit, or "untouchable," the social outcasts at the bottom of the caste system, has emerged as a major force in Indian politics, winning control of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state in 2007 state elections.
But she failed to replicate her success — based on an alliance of Dalits and high-caste Hindu Brahmins — in the national elections.
As results came in, celebrations erupted outside the Congress party headquarters. Party workers set off fireworks and danced in the streets carrying posters of party leader Sonia Gandhi.
"We have won a thumping majority," Congress activist Parag Jain said outside the party offices, in a leafy, elegant south New Delhi neighborhood. "Successful rule begins and ends with Congress and the Gandhi family."