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 the 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 it 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.
Other parties not out
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 its last term and a series of high-profile pro-poor programs.
"It's not just because it oversaw four years of 9 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 its 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.
"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."