The Congress's success in the general election can be attributed to the fact that it was a political confrontation devoid of the kind of emotional content which its principal opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), customarily exploits on such occasions.
As a result, the normality of the contest meant that the BJP could not whip up what it likes to term as nationalistic sentiments in its favor. It did try various pseudo-religious, pro-Hindu tacks such as promising to build the Ram temple or saving the Ram sethu. But if none of this worked, the reason was not only that the issues had become dated, but also because the voters had realized that these were no more than cynical electoral ploys.
However, it was the loss of the terror card which hurt the BJP the most. The party had routinely used it in the past to demonize the Muslims as a community in the guise of castigating the Pakistan-based terrorists. But the electorate appears to have seen through this game as well.
The BJP's other gambits also failed, and none more spectacularly than L.K. Advani's repeated attempts to portray Manmohan Singh as "weak". Yet, when the prime minister hit back with a stinging riposte to say that the BJP leader's main achievement was the demolition of the Babri masjid, Advani had to concede on television that he had been "hurt".
Arguably, the BJP retired hurt, to use a cricketing expression, from that moment and its present humiliation is the culmination of that retreat.
Hindsight suggests that it was a battle which the Congress could not lose. The plus points were stacked in its favor. Congressmen themselves claim that they had suggested figures of 170/180 seats for their party in the 543-member Lok Sabha in private conversations while the Intelligence Bureau estimates had pegged it at 150.
If the actual outcome has exceeded this guesswork by a large margin, the reason is that the BJP's prospects were damaged by everything which could undermine a party - lack of its favorite atavistic planks, the advanced age of its prime ministerial candidate, its reckless propaganda which included Advani's threat to conduct a nuclear test which would have meant scuttling the nuclear deal and, above all, the recourse to hardline Hindutva policies probably to compensate for the loss of the temple and terror cards.
Among those whose virulent anti-minority rhetoric must have revived fears of the BJP returning to the days of the Babri Masjid demolition were Varun Gandhi at the national level and B.L. Sharma at the local - mainly Delhi - level.
The Congress, on the other hand, apparently gained from its image of sobriety projected by Manmohan Singh, which was also enhanced by his reputation for personal integrity, and from the energetic campaigning of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Even if the party was taunted for its dependence on the dynasty, it did not seem to bother the average voter, as earlier experience has also shown.
The voter was also apparently not bothered by the withdrawal of a longstanding Interpol notice at the behest of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) against Italian businessman, Ottavio Quottrocchi, who is an accused in the Bofors scam. Or by the Congress's reluctance to recover the black money stashed abroad, as alleged by the BJP.
Instead, what may have helped the party was a latent wind in its favor, which was clearly discernible in Uttar Pradesh. If this trend could make its appearance in a state where the Congress had virtually been written off as a party without any hope, it is easy to imagine how this mood must have been prevalent in other states as well.
True, it wasn't there in neighboring Bihar and Jharkhand. But the explanations for the absence are obvious enough. In Bihar, the creditable performance of the Nitish Kumar government in restoring a semblance of law and order and checking the state's slide into anarchy, which was visible under Lalu Prasad, ensured the victory of the Janata Dal-United-BJP combination.
In Jharkhand, the political shenanigans of Shibu Soren and the partisan role of the governor undermined the Congress's chances. In Assam, the seeming incompetence of the Tarun Gogoi government about the threat of insurgency from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Islamic groups were the reasons why the Congress lost some ground to its adversaries.
But where the party managed to steer a moderate course in the states where it was in power, as in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana, it fared well. And this impression of restraint and responsibility could not but help it in the states where it was in the opposition, as in Kerala, West Bengal, Uttarakhand (where there was evidently a spillover from its partial revival in Uttar Pradesh), Punjab and Orissa.
What also helped the Congress is not only that it and its allies like the DMK have been able to fight off the anti-incumbency factor, the latter in Tamil Nadu, but the Congress has also made marginal gains even in states like Gujarat where it was supposedly fighting insurmountable odds in the person of Narendra Modi.
The fallout from the comfortable victory of the Congress and its partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) means that they will no longer be beholden to the Left, whose ideological quirks caused no end of trouble to the government last year on the nuclear deal. The Congress's own good showing will also make the allies stay in line, as Sharad Pawar's endorsement of Manmohan Singh's candidature for prime ministership shows. Earlier, Pawar had not been averse to his own name being proposed for the post.
Other prime ministerial aspirants like Mayawati have also been made aware of their limitations. This is another aspect of the elections where normality as opposed to extravagant ambitions and postures has gained primacy of place. As essentially a party of the middle path, it was inevitable, therefore, that the Congress would do well.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)