NEW DELHI – The Gandhi political dynasty prepared for a return to power Thursday after a stunning election victory fueled by anger among millions of rural poor left behind by India's economic boom.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search) resigned Thursday night, leaving Sonia Gandhi (search), the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (search), to take the helm of the world's largest democracy in one of the most dramatic political upsets since Indian independence nearly 60 years ago.
Gandhi immediately distanced herself from the Hindu nationalism of the outgoing government.
"We will take the lead ensure our country has strong, stable and secular government," she told a news conference.
Gandhi, who spoke in English and Hindi, shied away from saying whether she would become the next prime minister, offering only that it would be up to alliance leaders and the decision would be made Saturday.
Vajpayee, who quit Thursday night, had campaigned on the country's 8 percent growth rate, increased development and surge in high-tech industries. But his decision to call the election six months early was a devastating miscalculation.
"We have not got the mandate of the people," said Venkaiah Naidu, president of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (search). He said the decision to concede the race was made at a 90-minute meeting of the party and its coalition partners.
The opposition Congress Party (search) and its allies had already claimed victory, and some promised that Gandhi, the party leader, would be the next prime minister. There was still no official decision, however, and she must form a coalition with leftist parties that could object to her taking the leadership role — in part because of her foreign origins.
After nearly 14 hours of vote-counting for 539 of Parliament's 543 elected seats, official results showed the Congress party and its allies were leading Vajpayee's 11-member National Democratic Alliance 210 to 181 seats. Communist and other leftist parties have said they would back the Congress party, and they had gained 59 seats.
Sonia Gandhi won a seat in the northern town of Rae Bareli. Her son, 34-year-old Rahul, won a seat in Amethi, her previous constituency.
Vajpayee, who won re-election to his parliament seat, was to stay on until the new government is formed, the president's secretary said. He was to address the nation later on television.
Gandhi now faces the same challenges as she did in 1999, when she failed to take over the government due to disagreement over whether she should become prime minister. Among her potential allies on the left are senior politicians with much more experience; without their support she won't have a majority in Parliament.
The Congress party will take a day or two to stake its claim to form the next government, spokeswoman Ambika Soni told The Associated Press.
"The process of putting in place a secular coalition has begun," she said.
It was an embarrassing defeat for Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist-led government, which had called elections six months early because it felt confident of winning an even bigger majority in Parliament, based on the roaring economy and prospects of peace with Pakistan.
Before the five-part elections, which began April 20, Vajpayee and his alliance had been expected to win enough seats to eventually form a government and rule the country for another five years.
But the Congress party focused its campaign on the country's 300 million people who still live on less than a dollar a day. It hammered away at the lack of even basic infrastructure, electricity and potable water for millions of rural poor.
A leader in Vajpayee's coalition said the results were "totally against our expectations."
During her news conference, Gandhi pledged to continue peace efforts with Pakistan.
"From the very beginning we've been supporting the prime minister's initiative vis-a-vis Pakistan," she answered. "We have all along been saying a dialogue must be initiated with Pakistan. There is no question of us not following in those footsteps."
Pakistan also expressed confidence Thursday that peace talks would continue. Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press that the process involved the two governments, not "individual personalities."
Meanwhile, in Gujarat state, the heartland of support for the Hindu-dominated BJP, voters appeared to reject religion-based politics, slashing the party's representation in Parliament. Gujarat was the scene of violence between Hindus and Muslims that killed 1,000 people in 2002.
Gandhi has pushed for a secular India in contrast to the BJP's Hindu nationalist message. Her two children, Rahul and Priyanka, are up-and-coming politicians and state-run television reported that Rahul won his race to enter parliament for the first time.
The Gandhi dynasty dominated Indian politics since independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, headed the country from independence until his 1964 death. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her own bodyguards in 1984.
Rajiv, her son and Sonia's husband, took power and ruled until 1989. Two years later, he too was assassinated.
The family is not related to Mohandas Gandhi (search), India's independence leader.
During the campaign, Mahajan had called Gandhi's Indian-born children foreigners and had stoked the debate — dubbed the "Sonia factor" — over whether a foreign-born citizen should rule India.
Outside Sonia Gandhi's residence, supporters celebrated, beat drums, and set off firecrackers.
"They said she is a foreigner, but people have given them a reply," said Rati Lal Kala, 35, carrying a huge Congress party flag and wearing a scarf in Congress party colors. "The BJP has only played with the people's emotions. This should be a lesson for them."