Hindu pride and prejudice, plot twists and tears, suicide threats and song: India's shock election had all the juicy trimmings of blockbuster from the country's bustling Bollywood film industry. The old independence-era Indian National Congress Party vaulted back to power after an eight-year interregnum, ousting a self-satisfied Bharatiya Janata Party led by Hindu nationalists. Few expected such a power-packed comeback.
Credit for the Congress' victory went to Sonia Gandhi, widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and heir by marriage to the first family dynasty. Italian-born and retiring, she avoided politics for eight years after her husband's death in 1991, until party officials begged her to resuscitate the party synonymous with her name. Before the election, she spoke to crowd after crowd in the damp summer heat.
So when she shockingly announced on May 18-five days after polls closed-that she would not be India's next prime minister, the party anguish was loud. Emotional Congress lawmakers resumed the begging, some with tears. Followers outside her home rallied in her support, burning effigies of Hindu nationalists who had vowed to boycott the inauguration of a "foreigner." One supporter threatened to commit suicide if she didn't take the job.
"I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I will follow my inner voice," she explained. "Today that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post." Mrs. Gandhi seemed immovable, at least as much as could be expected from an election that dished surprises at every corner. Most shell-shocked by the election season events, however, was incumbent Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who resigned on May 13, the day results were released.
Mr. Vajpayee had confidently campaigned with the slogan "India Shining," in reference to the economy's blistering 8 percent growth rate. Party officials and pundits banked on a high "feel-good factor" among millions of prospering middle- and upper-class Indians. Mr. Vajpayee's chutzpah rankled millions more who are still languishing on less than $1 per day. They stampeded polls to vote for the opposition, snatching defeat from the jaws of what pundits everywhere assumed would be another BJP victory. The BJP saw its share of seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha, shrink from 182 to 138. Several of its crucial coalition-building allies also melted away, while Congress officials carefully gathered their own, gaining 217 seats altogether.
As it became clear that staggering pre-election miscalculations had fattened into large-scale defeat for BJP, Muslim and Christian minorities celebrated. A return to the Congress, with its bedrock principle that India's government must be secular, is a relief after Mr. Vajpayee's Hindu nationalists.
The BJP's drubbing didn't come as a complete shock to India's Christians, however. Many were praying for the party's electoral loss. Renowned Christian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi told WORLD that the party's leaders are out of touch with the daily struggles of lower Hindu castes. "I didn't expect the BJP to win," he said. "I think the Indian elite just talk amongst themselves."
The healthy economy is also feeding resentment and jealousy against wealthy Indians among the poor, the seeds of a "civil war," Mr. Mangalwadi said. "The economic success is in fact one of the causes of the BJP's fall, and it could eventually grow into a much bigger revolt from the lower castes."
Two states-Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh-saw a voter revolt against unpopular parties the BJP had picked as election allies. Natives of Tamil Nadu resented their former chief minister, an old movie star known by the single name Jayalalitha, for her vengeful politics.
During her term, Jayalalitha oversaw the dubious arrests of two opposition leaders, though she later released them. In 2002 her government passed a law against forced conversions, aimed at limiting Christian evangelization. Last year, it arrested journalists from prominent daily newspaper The Hindu for "gross contempt" of the state assembly.
Congress capitalized in Tamil Nadu, as it did in discontented Andhra Pradesh. The agricultural state has seen 3,000 farmers commit suicide since 1997, desperate over long droughts, low crop prices, and indebtedness. The ousted chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, largely ignored their plight.
He instead focused (successfully) on turning state capital Hyderabad into one of India's largest software and technology hubs, said Jerry Thomas of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in India. Like Jayalalitha, his style was more "dictator than a democratic leader," he said. In Mr. Naidu's place, Congress appointed a Christian chief minister.
Elsewhere, BJP strongholds weakened. In Gujarat, a haven for Hindu extremists, even the Congress was surprised that it won 12 of 26 seats. The state saw the country's worst communal violence in decades in 2002, when Hindus killed almost 2,000 Muslims in retaliation for some setting light to a passenger train that killed 58 Hindus. With few prosecutions for Hindu attackers, Muslim and Christian minorities wearied of the chief minister's "Hindu-ization" agenda.
Now that Indian voters have kicked out the BJP, a half-startled Congress has to plug the void. Eight years ago the party endured the worst electoral defeat in its history, following a series of corruption scandals involving then-Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Two years later Congress officials pleaded with Sonia Gandhi to rescue India's founding party.
Mrs. Gandhi was reluctant to enter volatile Indian politics. Sikh bodyguards had assassinated her mother-in-law Indira in 1984. She threatened to divorce husband Rajiv if he shouldered the Gandhi legacy and became prime minister, then said she "fought like a tigress" to keep their privacy after he did. Her worst fears for his safety came true in 1991, when a suicide bomber blew up Mr. Gandhi as he campaigned for office.
But when Mrs. Gandhi dove into the election fray, she led a grueling campaign. Adoring rural Indians flocked to see their "bahu," an affectionate Hindi term for "daughter-in-law." Adding to the Gandhi aura were her two grown children: 34-year-old Rahul, who ran for and won a parliamentary seat historically held by his family, and 32-year-old Priyanka, a mother-of-two and Indira look-alike who helped coordinate her mother's campaign.
"The opposition status of Congress has humbled it," Mr. Thomas said. "It helped them to be in touch with the people. During the election campaign, you could see the photos of Sonia Gandhi and her children and the Congress leaders among the people. Not the BJP though."
Others were not so sure Mrs. Gandhi was ready to lead. Hindu nationalists protested in Delhi against the possible inauguration of a "foreigner." The Indian stock market suffered the biggest plunge in its 129-year history the Monday after official election results, worried over the clutch of resurgent Communist and leftist parties allied with the Congress. Some of them threatened to halt the privatization of state-owned enterprises.
While privatization may lose steam initially, Mr. Mangalwadi argues that the Congress initiated the economic reforms in the early 1990s that the BJP continued. "Now it can't go back," he said. "I don't think it will be slowed down, not for any ideological purposes, but to keep up with the momentum and keep up with China."
Even so, objections to Sonia's foreignness and inexperience hastened her retreat from claiming the premiership, leaving the laurels for another top Congress leader. Manmohan Singh, the architect of India's first economic reforms, who was chosen last week for the job.
Regardless of the delays surrounding the choosing of a leader, the return of the Congress and its allies was the best political news Christians could hope for. The BJP's Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness," ideology, promoted conforming all of Indian culture and public policy to Hindu principles, and crept across states in the sub-continent. Christians endured hundreds of attacks-including rapes, killings, torture, and destruction of church property-from extremists in the last five years. Education officials also began injecting school curricula with Hindutva principles.
"A national anti-conversion law is now out of the question," said Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, a human-rights group. He wrote in a post-election analysis that Congress and the Indian Left have always differed from far-left-wing forces in other countries by being staunch defenders of religious freedom. Sam Sendar, a developer of charitable works in South India, said simply, "Congress has never hurt Christians in any way."
And now Mr. Mangalwadi predicts far-reaching effects from the Congress victory. He thinks Andhra Pradesh, with its Christian chief minister, could loosen laws to allow Hindus to convert to Christianity while keeping the benefits of their caste. With that change, in five years it could become the first mainland state to harbor a Christian majority.
Tamil Nadu is also likely to repeal its anti-conversion law, and that flexibility will throw open more educational and economic opportunities for Hindus and others. It might also taint the church with caste distinctions. But Mr. Mangalwadi notes such changes would allow church groups "to mobilize missionary movements to the rest of India. There are a large number of people in coastal Andhra Pradesh who are Christians in their heart, but on paper are Hindus."
The Congress, however, cannot coast on the credentials of the Gandhi dynasty forever. Mr. Mangalwadi said voters will want to see Mrs. Gandhi and party officials develop new leadership and help the lowest castes that thrust them into power. For an India both backward and booming, it's in with the old-and in with the new.