The final Indian election results are in -- here are the state-by-state results, and the nationwide tallies. Perhaps most significant -- though often overlooked -- here are the nationwide vote-shares of the principal parties. And in case you've been living under a rock these past couple of days, the Congress-led UPA alliance has convincingly defeated its rivals, principally the BJP-led NDA alliance; the final margin was far greater than in 2004.
The question is: why, and what do the results mean? It is a question one must hasten to ask, before it is spun every which way, and ultimately into conventional wisdom. This sort of puff-piece, suggesting that the youth-vote factor helped push the Congress across the finishing line, but devoid of hard data (such as, for instance, what proportion of the electorate consisted of young voters in the 2009 elections), is quite typical of the Indian media. Not to mention murmurs from within the NDA that the projection of hardline Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a possible future PM might have hurt the coalition (the NDA's oficial candidate, L.K. Advani, was 81, after all). And certainly there will be no shortage of verbiage explaining the results as a "victory for secularism", or as the triumph of "vote-bank politics" (read: the specter of en bloc voting by Muslims as somehow illegitimate), or as a sign of the "growing maturity" of an Indian electorate that has shown greater interest in economic and infrastructure development than in communitarian appeals. Evidently, if you thought the country's diversity, its plethora of political parties, and the fractured nature of the electorate (the Congress and BJP combined received fewer than half the votes cast) would give the punditocracy pause, you were wrong.
In the end, my (tentative) inclination is to read the election results as the reward for a moderation that was not just ideological but temperamental: the principal Congress leaders generally seemed relatively calm and unruffled over the course of the campaign, as indeed they had appeared over the preceding five years. Thus, while both major parties spoke of stability, the likes of Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, seemed to exude it -- remarkably, the party didn't lose its poise even in the aftermath of Mumbai attack last year (undoubtedly aided by the fact that the urban public's disgust with the status quo was general vis-a-vis all politicians, as opposed to specific to the Congress). To be sure, Advani himself was not lacking in poise, but the BJP definitely sent more mixed signals: extolling development before the national media, but firmly standing by hate-mongers like Varun Gandhi and Ashok Sahu; talking up its own discipline and cohesiveness, even as the part was riven by in-fighting and jockeying by younger leaders none too thrilled to see Modi anointed as heir apparent in the media; and generally floundering for coherence, going so far as to bash an Indo-US nuclear deal that the party had itself championed when in power.
The second point I'd like to make concerns India's rural voters, specifically, the populist measures touted by the Congress/UPA. For the second national election in a row, the Congress has devoted more attention to the economic concerns of rural Indians than the BJP has -- and has reaped the rewards. This isn't to say that the Congress' commitment to economic liberalization is any more or less than the BJP's (there isn't much to choose between the parties on that front these days), but that the Congress is more comfortable with the realization that public support for the sort of cautious, fits-and-starts liberalization India has seen since 1991, will not endure if the rural poor do not see some immediate benefits from the political dispensations championing that liberalization. To the extent the BJP has tried to take small town and rural voters along, it has historically tried to do so by means of cultural issues (such as the Babri mosque/Ramjanambhoomi temple movement). Increasingly, however, that sort of bi-polar mobilization, of a Hindu identity in opposition to a Muslim other imagined to be receiving preferential treatment from the Indian state, has proven difficult in the seat-rich states of the Hindi heartland, as caste-based parties have undermined the plausibility of the BJP's narrative. The Congress has shown signs of picking up the rural baton on economic grounds, and so far appears to have profited as a result.
Perhaps the two points are not unrelated: Shekhar Gupta (editor of the Indian Express) summed it up well on television when he eschewed the grand narratives of "secularism" and "development" in favor of an explanation that the Indian electorate has, over the past few years, tended to vote for parties who run campaigns addressing the public's aspirations, not its resentments. While the recent history of India hardly affords room for complacency -- it was less than a year ago that large-scale communal violence in Orissa killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands; and 2008 was the worst year on record as far as terrorism was concerned, with serial blasts in cities across the country -- the political atmosphere does seem a shade less shrill than it used to be in the decade leading up to the Gujarat pogroms of 2002 and beyond. I wouldn't ascribe any permanence to this softening of the edges, nor a tendency toward ever-increasing moderation, but Gupta's comment does capture the tenor of the moment. Given where the country has been in the recent past, and where it could easily go, I'll chalk that up as a victory of sorts.