The venerable Indian National Congress Party – the natural governing party in the world's largest democracy, the party of Nehru and Gandhi – has just suffered its most devastating electoral defeat ever at the hands of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its polarizing, pro-business leader, Narendra Modi.
And though attention is rightly being paid to Mr. Modi and his victory as results flood in from India's national elections, which are being tallied today after five weeks of staggered voting stages, another story is equally – if not more – interesting.
And that story is this: the unmistakable and overwhelming move away from the dynastic Nehru-Gandhi family that has shaped India since independence in 1947.
For a sense of the vast scale of the Congress defeat, one can turn to the bellwether swing state of Uttar Pradesh, with more than 200 million people, 80 of India's 543 seats and the largest population of Muslim voters – who were widely expected to turn against Mr. Modi, who reigned in Gujarat during horrendous anti-Muslim violence there in 2002, for which he was denied a U.S. visa. The state is also home to Amethi, the historic riding of the Gandhi clan and the constituency in this election for Rahul Gandhi – the scion of India's most important political dynasty.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP looks set to win 71 seats. Congress looks set to win just two. Nationally, the BJP looks set to win 282 seats – more than a simple majority in India's lower house – while Congress may only get 44 seats. That would be, by far, the party's worst election result in the history of independent India – an independence Congress leaders secured after much blood and toil.
It is worth pondering those numbers for a second: the BJP won more seats in a single state than Congress won across all of India.
That is a truly remarkable turn of events that reveals the intense depth of dissatisfaction Indians have with the Congress party, which has stumbled through numerous corruption scandals in recent years, as well as with its leader, Rahul Gandhi, whom many looked on as a reluctant heir to power, a man who inherited his position without merit, who led the party without conviction and – after leading and helping lose state elections in Uttar Pradesh – has now brought the party, and the family, to its knees.
The party of secularism and the social democratic welfare state has been well and truly devastated in this election, and as their rivals take power and sculpt India in their own image, Congress – with or without the Gandhis at the helm – will have to regroup, rebuild the party and rethink its own role.
The Congress defeat is even more emphatic because of the victor: Mr. Modi, a self-made, low-caste son of a tea seller who rose through the ranks of the Hindu nationalist movement to become the no-nonsense, pro-business chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.
Mr. Modi, in many ways, represents ideals that are the exact opposite of the Congress party, broadly, and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, in particular. He is unabashedly pro-business in a country that is still (ostensibly) a social democracy and he and his party members have been unafraid to stoke Hindu-Muslim tensions when it suits their purpose (India is roughly 80 per cent Hindu) in contrast to the secular-by-DNA Congress party.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Modi ridiculed Mr. Gandhi as a young, untested, dynastic ruler who represented everything India was trying to move away from – corruption, privilege and profit as a result of proximity to power, and, perhaps most importantly, the economic and political status quo, which had become increasingly untenable as India urbanized and modernized.
India has voted for Mr. Modi and the BJP, that much is clear. But the country has also voted – overwhelmingly – against Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi ideal. And as the euphoria and nitty-gritty details of vote counting subside, that may be the lasting result from this pivotal election.