Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to call a general election six months early in order to strengthen the position of his coalition government, which already enjoyed a solid majority in parliament.
But in a surprise reversal of electoral fortunes, India's ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party has announced instead that it is going into opposition. And Vajpayee is stepping down later today, according to Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes: "The prime minister has called a meeting of the cabinet this evening and he will, [after] that meeting, he will resign. We have decided, as [Vajpayee's 11-member National Democratic Alliance], to sit in the opposition."
India's main Congress opposition party has already claimed victory, with party spokesman Kapil Sibal saying confidently in New Delhi: "We will form the next government."
Gandhi is expected to hold a press conference in the Indian capital sometime later today.
Gandhi is the Italian-born widow of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Her win in the general election is all the more surprising because she lacks the political experience of either her late husband or of Vajpayee. She had been widely expected to lead the venerable Congress party into obscurity.
It appears that the Congress party is on its way to winning a majority in the general election. A majority in the 545-seat lower house, the Lok Sabha, requires 273 seats. If it does not achieve a majority, Congress will need to form a coalition along with smaller leftist parties, which have promised to support a Congress-led government.
Party spokeswoman Ambika Soni has indicted that Congress will not be turning to any of the ruling right-leading NDA parties to help it form a majority coalition: "We have been saying this for the past three days, that according to the early trends, the BJP have lost the moral right to sit in power. And then a non-NDA secular government should be formed under the Congress leadership."
In calling early elections, Vajpayee was counting on the booming economy, progress in economic reforms, and the improving ties with regional nuclear rival Pakistan to win voter support. His campaign for the hearts and minds of India's massive electorate was fought under the slogan "India Shining."
That expectation was a disastrous miscalculation.
The reason for the upset appears to be that the mainly rural-based poor of India expressed their anger at being left out of the surging economic growth in the cities, which is based on high-tech industries. The government's economic reforms themselves were blamed for increasing hardship among the poor.
Although the result of the election is a shock, a significant clue to popular mood was, in fact, revealed earlier in the week. In a separate election in the southern Andhra Pradesh state, Vajpayee ally Chandrababu Naidu was swept from office.
Naidu is one of India's leading political advocates of the information technology revolution. As chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he was instrumental in attracting foreign investment in high-tech industries to the southern state.
But the state has suffered severe drought, causing hardship among the rural poor. As a senior correspondent of the news agency Press Trust of India, H.S. Rao, puts it: "There had been a series of suicides among farmers, because of lack of [success]. The cotton crop failed. There has been drought. They felt the rural area had been neglected and so forth. Out of an estimated 4,000 suicide deaths [in India] in one year, about 3,000 were in Andhra Pradesh state."
Meanwhile, Pakistan today said it hopes the defeat of Vajpayee's ruling party will not affect peace negotiations between the two nations.
More than 380 million voters participated in India's elections, which took place in five phases beginning 20 April. Some 50 people died in election-related violence, less than half of the deaths in the last poll in 1999.