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Behind the backlash in India


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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- It is one of the biggest upsets in the political history of the world's largest democracy.

On Thursday Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who called elections six months ahead of schedule and campaigned on the slogan "India Shining," was defeated.

Vajpayee's move to an early poll was designed to capitalize on the "feel-good" effect triggered by a booming economy and a valiant bid for peace with neighbor and arch-rival, Pakistan.

But his stunning loss has left the way clear for Italian-born opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi, to try to become the first foreign-born prime minister of India.

Few expected Gandhi to run such an efficient campaign, but she won in a stunning victory on a groundswell of support for bread-and-butter issues such as jobs, prosperity, water and electricity.

Gandhi's Congress party and its allies championed the nation's poor. The party says these are the people who have been left out of India's newfound prosperity, built on economic growth of 8 percent this year.

Three hundred million of India's 1.1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

Hundreds of millions of poorer Indians like unemployed Dewan Singh say they voted for Gandhi, because Vajpayee's economic reforms failed to improve their lives.

"The youth of India are unemployed," he says. "And we are happy because the Congress party has promised us jobs.''

Many of India's poorest people, farmers living in rural areas, did not see any of the benefits of a booming economy that well-educated urbanites were exposed to.

Indians like Munni, who begs to survive, says the gap between rich and poor is growing and she voted to register her anger.

"Whichever religion these ruling politicians belong to I abuse them. They don't even care if we have food to eat,'' says Munni.

With 54 percent of India's voting population under 25, the younger generation were also keen to push for their ambitions and happy to see younger candidates like 26-year-old Sachin Pilot.

Congress party candidate Pilot fought against Vajpayee who he accused of failing to feel the pulse of voters.

"India by and large is a poor country and you really need a political leadership that really feels for the poor of the country and they are the ones who decide who will form the government,'' says Pilot.

Gandhi's supporters are pleading with her to accept the country's top job. But she has remained non-committal, telling delirious fans her party and its allies will soon make that decision.

In the next few days, the victorious Congress party will try to bring in other like-minded allies to take over power from Vajpayee's coalition.

-- CNN's Satinder Bindra contributed to this report


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