Written by Political Bureau | New Delhi | Updated: May 17 2009, 07:19am hrs
Surpassing its own expectations like it did in 2004, but this time more overwhelmingly, the Congress breached the 200-seat mark in the 15th Lok Sabha-its highest tally in 18 years-powering the UPA back to the Centre.

Its stunning triumph left the BJP behind by at least 10% in vote-share, reduced the CPM to its worst ever performance and set the stage for a secular government that doesnt need the Left for support.

The UPA was projected to win 261 seats, short of the 272 needed for a majority; the BJP-led Opposition alliance would take 160 seats; a Third Front of communists and smaller groups 58 seats. The Congresss victory and tally mean it will be easier to form a stable coalition with smaller parties that will be less vulnerable to pressure on issues like economic reform.

Eventually, the people of India know whats good for them and they always make the right choice, said Congress president Sonia Gandhi hours after the victory. And she reiterated her position on who will lead the next government: The party has decided that Manmohan Singh will be the Prime Minister. Standing next to her (pictured above), Singh said: The people of India have spoken, and spoken with great clarity.

What appeared to be an election splintered into several local ones in 28 states and Union territories, was given a firm national shape by the 714 million-strong electorate, making Singh the first-ever Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru (in 1957) to be returned to office after serving a full five-year term.

Having firmly established itself as the coalition that stood for inclusive growthwith a charter that spread from economic reform to the Employment Guarantee Act and the right to informationthe Congress weathered the exit of its largest ally, the Left Front, on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It managed to swing back despite sharply rising food prices, job losses and on the back of a string of terror attacks, including the siege in Mumbai on November 26 last year.

With Singh, Sonia and a maturing Rahul Gandhi, the party managed to weave the right message and image and blew its way into right strongholds (the BJPs northern states of Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and retaining Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra) as well as the Lefts Red Fort in West Bengal (ably assisted by firebrand ally Mamata Banerjee).

What also seemed to have worked in Singhs favour was the manner in which he took on BJP prime ministerial aspirant LK Advanis attacks. Continuously taunted as the weakest PM by the Opposition, his tough reprisal and reminder of the octogenarian Advanis involvement in the Babri Masjid demolition and handling of the Kandahar hijack robbed the BJP attack of its sting.

The real Saturday surprise came from Uttar Pradesh (with 80 seats). Despite starting with a small vote-share (about 9% in the last Assembly elections two years ago) and little organisational muscle, the Congress fired the imagination of the UP voter and managed to hold its own amongst cynical and tough nuts like the SP and the BSP.

The return of minorities, upper-castes in good measure and a slice of Dalits appears to have made this possible. Five years after the UPA took oath, the Congresss decision to shake off its baggage of fighting as a junior partneran idea pushed by Rahul Gandhihelped the party cash in on not only nostalgia for a golden Congress era, but also the non-performance of other regional parties.

This election in Maharashtra returned a Congress-NCP alliance despite farmer suicides and terror attacks in the state. With a change of chief minister, deputy chief minister and the firing of Union home minister, amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the perception of even-handed handling of terror helped craft the UPAs return here.

The southern thrill for the Congress came in the form of a robust performance in AP, where it improved upon its 2004 tally. And in TN, where the Congress-DMK alliance staved off a formidable AIADMK alliance riding on the basis of schemes, governance and better handling of the rage at neighbouring Sri Lanka.