Indians surprised as Vajpayee heads for defeat
Indian voters expressed surprise on Thursday about the prospect of elder statesman Atal Behari Vajpayee losing a national election and Italian-born Sonia Gandhi replacing him as the country's next leader.
With results from the marathon election expected in hours, vote tallies showed Vajpayee's coalition heading for a stunning defeat, while the Congress party of the Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty gained far more than predicted in opinion polls.
"I could not have dreamed that Congress would come to power. All the polls said BJP alliance would be number one. It seems Congress has done some sort of magic," said Samir Mondal, a private security guard in Calcutta.
"It is unreal," he said, shaking his head.
A month ago, opinion polls showed Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coasting to victory and the opposition Congress party dead in the water.
But Congress has been revitalised by Sonia Gandhi and her popular children, Rahul and Priyanka, the new generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who drew huge crowds on the campaign trail in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
"I still can't comprehend it. I am in shock," said Subhash Chand, a young Congress supporter outside Sonia Gandhi's Delhi home.
"This kind of a lead was never expected. This is all because of Rahul and Priyanka. They sent the message from Uttar Pradesh to the entire country. The youth of this country are with Rahul and not with Vajpayee," he said.
Sonia is the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991. The BJP had launched blistering campaign attacks pointing out that she was not born in India, but this tactic appeared to have failed.
Rajiv Gandhi was the son of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and grandson of Jawaharal Nehru, the country's first prime minister. Between them, the three ruled India for 35 of the 57 years the country has been independent.
But many were anguished that Vajpayee would have to leave office. Retired professor Sudha Udeshi said he was irreplaceable.
"Without Vajpayee as the prime minister, the country will face a big blow," Udeshi, 65, said in the commercial hub Bombay.
"There is nobody like him, a liberal leader who could tackle Pakistan and push ahead for peace initiatives," she said after being glued to the television watching results.
WORRY OVER PEACE PROCESS
Mushtaq Ahmad, a doctor in Kashmir, also worried about the fate of a peace process with Pakistan championed by Vajpayee at the head of his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.
"If NDA loses, the peace initiative with Pakistan and in Kashmir will be hurt," Mushtaq Ahmad said in Srinagar, capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state, where Muslim militants backed by Pakistan are fighting Indian rule.
But another Kashmiri, Noor-ul-Qamrian, 35, said he did not care who won. "It will be business as usual at the centre. The indifference of New Delhi towards Kashmir will continue."
Vajpayee called the election six months early confident a booming economy, warming ties with old foe Pakistan and a bumper harvest would guarantee his alliance another five years.
But voters and analysts say his "India shining" slogan came across as too smug and the country's rural majority has turned its back on the ruling coalition saying reforms and booming growth had only benefitted the urban middle class.
H. Narasimhan, a retired bank employee in Delhi, was scathing about the record of Vajpayee's BJP.
"This is a lesson to most second-rung BJP leaders that they need to get out of TV screens and get on to the roads. The rural masses have rejected the computer culture the NDA was propagating," Narasimhan said.
"To them reforms mean water, food and clothing, which the NDA has failed to deliver in the villages," he said.
In the western state of Gujarat, rocked by violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims in 2002 that the BJP is accused of fuelling, Mehboob Sheikh was overjoyed the BJP had done badly.
"I am very, very thrilled that the BJP has lost. I think the bad days are over for the Muslims and I can see days of relief and hope that there will be no repetition of what happened in 2002," said Mehboob, a teacher at a madrassa, or Islamic school.