Long Live the Singh

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party wins an unexpectedly strong victory in India.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Click image to expand.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

On Saturday, Manmohan Singh became India’s first prime minister since Indira Gandhi to win a second term in office. * But the true star of this campaign was Gandhi’s grandson Rahul Gandhi.

Both Singh and Gandhi are leaders of the Congress Party, whose members flooded the streets of New Delhi Saturday to celebrate their unexpectedly strong victory. Amid the marching bands and exploding firecrackers, there mingled a stranger sound: voters shouting the words to the song “Singh Is Kinng.” The song is the most popular tune from a Bollywood movie, released last year, that had nothing to do with the prime minister and features a cameo from rapper Snoop Dogg. But that’s not even the most un-prime ministerial thing about it. The title of king simply doesn’t fit the mild-mannered Singh. He doesn’t project a royal image.

“No one goes to the polls to vote for Manmohan Singh,” sneered political analyst Mohan Guruswamy before the results were announced. Singh—always dressed in a pale-blue turban, always mumbling into his carefully trimmed beard—fades into the background in an Indian political arena dominated by colorful, passionate leaders. Many ministers get elected based on fiery appeals to religious and caste-based grievances; more than one high-profile politician was accused of hate speech before voting began in mid-April.

Meanwhile, Singh is so soft-spoken that it is hard to understand his press conferences. He’s often been ridiculed as a guileless puppet, manipulated from behind the scenes by Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress Party. But Singh has a reputation for running a vigorously clean administration and for standing on his principles. His self-effacing manner might very well have convinced voters he is what India needs as it faces the new challenges of a slowing economy and renewed turmoil in its neighborhood.

The result certainly comes as a relief to Washington. Obama administration officials were almost as terrified as U.S. investors at the prospect of an India held together by a feeble coalition government, an India potentially run by state party bosses with no previously articulated foreign policy—or, worse, a government dominated by India’s leftist parties with a pro-Iran and anti-American agenda. Such a government would surely have continued to delay long-awaited economic reforms. It would have been less likely to execute the kind of agile diplomacy necessary with India’s volatile neighbors—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.

Like the Indian middle class, Washington basically considers the Congress Party a safe bet. Both groups hope the party will take prudent action to help control an explosive Pakistan. Singh is a known quantity and pro-globalization: He is one of the original architects of India’s economic reforms, and he recently staked his reputation on the controversial U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear deal, which he saw as a pillar for a budding strategic relationship with the United States.

The Confederation of Indian Industry immediately urged the new government to “fast track” economic reforms. U.S. and Indian businesspeople are pleased that the Congress Party will almost certainly be able to push through many long-stalled economic reforms, unfettered by leftist parties that had a great deal of influence on the last Congress coalition. These elections decimated the leftists; they lost big even in their traditional bastions of Kerala and West Bengal (a state that has been led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist for over three decades).

For weeks, the Indian media have been agog with the intrigue, prophesying, and horse-trading of an uncertain outcome. With a shaky coalition the most likely result, India’s 24-hour news machine speculated endlessly, MSNBC-style, about which coalition would win over which “vote bank.” When an ambitious regional leader made a veiled insult at a bigger leader, it sparked a fury of reporting on potential kings and kingmakers.

The reporting was all the more fascinating because so many of these characters are colorful figures, like Kumari Mayawati, from the Dalit, or untouchable, caste, who styled herself as the savior of the oppressed masses. But in the end, Mayawati performed disappointingly in these elections, regardless of her high ambitions and her obvious appeal to India’s lower castes.

If U.S. exit polls are unreliable, consider the special challenge facing pollsters in India. More than 8,000 candidates from more than 1,000 political parties were on the ballot in this year’s election. Analysts dared venture only a few certainties about the results, which were also mostly wrong. Most anticipated that India’s smaller, regional parties would upstage the national parties and that a weaker coalition would emerge.

In fact, the Congress Party-led alliance has come out stronger. It won more seats than any party in 25 years: 206 of the 543 elected seats, which, along with its allies, is ample to form the government. As the Times of India put it, “India has once again surprised Indians.”

For decades after its independence in 1947, the Congress Party was the glue that held India together. Congress was the dominant force in politics—and culture and everything Indian for that matter—until smaller, identity-based parties began chipping away at its influence 20 years ago. Politics based on religion, caste, language, and region seemed to compel an increasingly fractured India of many diversities, differences, and grudges.

Muslims and Dalits long complained that the Congress Party treated them as vote banks. They accused Congress of doing little to improve the dire poverty and illiteracy in their communities—problems that continue for them today, as a 2006 report makes clear.

This election may signal the Congress Party’s return to its historic glory as India’s centrist and unifying party, the Mother India that embraces the country’s astounding heterogeneity. One man who believes that is 38-year-old Rahul Gandhi, who besides being Nehru’s great-grandson is the son of murdered Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul—as he is referred to by millions of Indians who do not know him but feel like they do—has been showered with much of the credit for his party’s win.

After a quavering start, the heir to the most important political dynasty in India grew into political astuteness during these elections. Rahul is believed to have clocked more hours on the campaign trail than any other politician, and he consistently drew heavy, adoring crowds that were reminiscent of Congress Party rallies in the early post-independence days: men clambering up tent poles and trees to catch a glimpse of the man on the dais with Bollywood star status.

On Saturday, Rahul decreed that the Congress Party’s win means Indian voters have rejected caste- and religion-based politics. Whether or not that is true, he seems to want it to be. On the campaign trail, Rahul made a point of making gestures such as drinking tea with groups of Dalits, which has indescribable symbolic significance in an India where it is traditionally taboo for upper-caste people to share food or drink with untouchables. 

The party hasn’t decided whether Rahul will immediately take a role in the new government. But while Singh may be king for now, he is 77; he may move over for the ascendant star before he completes his term. “Rahul Is Kinng” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it would make a lot more sense: He is literally the dynastic heir to the Indian throne.

Correction, May 18, 2009: This article originally stated that Manmohan Singh was India’s first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to win a second term in office. Indira Gandhi also won consecutive terms, serving from 1966 to 1977. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)