New Delhi: A surprisingly clean win hasn’t just ensured a second term for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) but also set the stage for Rahul Gandhi’s entry into the political mainstream.

Gandhi, the Congress general secretary and one of the party’s star campaigners this year, was behind many of the decisions that helped the party-led alliance win, say several Congressmen.

Back with a bang: Prime minister Manmohan Singh and party leader Sonia Gandhi savour their victory. B Mathur / Reuters

The UPA won or was leading with 258 seats, just 14 shy of a clear majority of 272 in the 543-member house.

Analysts say the real significance of the election results isn’t as much the UPA’s return to power but what it means to the Congress as a party. And, they add, what it means to Rahul Gandhi. In the run-up to the elections, Gandhi’s comments on the need to focus on strengthening and rebuilding the party had initially seemed out of place. But his strategy to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh, which was previously seen as foolhardy, now looks like a masterstroke.

To be sure, the Congress went to the polls with Manmohan Singh as its prime ministerial candidate, and while Singh will soon be sworn in for a second term as Prime Minister, that job will eventually go to Rahul Gandhi, say a Congressman and a political analyst.

“The image of Manmohan Singh as a clean, competent and efficient leader favoured the Congress," says Sudha Pai, professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

However, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, says Rahul Gandhi’s role was “central" to the UPA’s win. “He is the architect of this victory. His decision to go alone in Uttar Pradesh paid dividend(s), (the) organization is getting in place and a revival is taking place. Also, he was the main campaigner for the party."

While Sonia Gandhi travelled 66,000km on the campaign trail, Rahul visited 25 states and addressed at least 100 election rallies covering 87,000km. “His role was crucial in converting the maximum number of youth for the party’s support. We attribute the party’s victory to the trio—Manmohan Singh, party chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi—and the party workers," says Congress general secretary B.K. Hariprasad.

“Rahul has captured the imagination of the youth," says Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Congressman who retained his Guna seat in Madhya Pradesh. Scindia and a few other Congressmen also say Gandhi had what it takes to become the country’s prime minister. “I am not undermining anyone but I am saying that Rahul Gandhiji should be prime minister. He has all the qualities and capabilities...he has actually shown that in this election...," Scindia told NDTV.

The Congress announced on Saturday afternoon that Singh would have his second term but the party’s general secretary Janardan Dwivedi said Gandhi would “become prime minister when he desires or when such a situation emerges".

It’s only a matter of time before this happens, says Mehta. “Anyway, he has become a big political force now."

Later on Saturday, Manmohan Singh said he would try to induct Gandhi into the cabinet. Earlier this month, Gandhi, who usually evades questions on ministership, said in a conference: “I will continue to work for the youth unless I am forced by the prime minister and my boss (Congress president Sonia Gandhi).... But personally, I prefer to work for the youth."

The margin of victory, analysts say, would also give the Congress a stronger say in government formation and its functioning. “We will dictate the terms for government formation. We had to yield even to unreasonable demands from the allies. But now we do not have to," says a senior party leader and a Congress Working Committee member who did not want to be identified.

The win has also strengthened the Congress’ image as a party that can work with allies and lead a coalition, says Pai.

“Prior to 2004, Congress was seen as a party that could not take others along with (it), but the formation of the UPA, the (creation of the) common minimum programme (a guideline of sorts for the alliance in 2004), the agenda for governance and its attempts to evolve consensus over India-US nuclear deal all helped the party. Congress also proved that it could run a coalition successful," Pai says.

The Left parties, which had extended support to the UPA government, withdrew their support in July over the nuclear deal which they were against. “Now, the Congress has to live up to people’s expectations," he adds.

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