Narendra Modi closed in on a landslide victory in India’s election Friday as results showed him riding a wave of support for promises of jobs and development that has drowned out his past as a religious right-winger.
Counting at the climax of the marathon six-week election showed his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on track for a crushing win, with the Congress party nearing humiliating defeat after 10 years in power.
“It seems very bleak at the moment,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi admitted early in the day, with preliminary figures showing the BJP leading in 231 out of 460 constituencies where counting had begun.
Congress led in just 48.
“I will accept victory on behalf of the BJP,” party spokeswoman Meenakshi Lekhi told NDTV news channel.
Modi, a 63-year-old son of a low-caste tea seller, has reinvented himself from a controversial regional leader tainted by anti-Muslim riots to an aspiring prime minister intent on helping India fulfil its potential.
After a presidential-style campaign built around him and his record running western Gujarat state, expectations are sky-high of what Modi will deliver in a chaotic and still poor country that is home to a sixth of humanity.
Tonnes of sweets and fireworks have been delivered to BJP headquarters in New Delhi in anticipation of a landslide, while party workers beat drums and waved flags in Gujarat on Friday.
Stock markets, which have risen 5.0 percent in the past week, surged again. The benchmark index known as the Sensex jumped more than four percent on Friday morning to a record high.
Investors and the larger public have rediscovered heady — many say unrealistic — optimism about the world’s largest democracy after years of frustration about low economic growth, rising food prices and corruption.
Modi’s promises to revive the flagging economy have won him corporate cheerleaders, while his rags-to-riches story and reputation as a clean and efficient administrator satisfy many Indians’ desire for strong leadership.
He was always assured the votes of his core Hindu nationalist supporters, but his election pitch has drawn the urban middle classes as well as the poor, whose loyalty has traditionally been to Congress and its welfare schemes.
Attacks from his opponents — one called him a “devil” and the “Butcher of Gujarat” — as well as warnings from secular-minded critics and religious minorities appear to have failed to dent his rise.
The BJP’s previous best showing was in elections in 1998 and 1999 when it won 182 seats and ran the country until a shock defeat to Congress in 2004.
A BJP victory and a Modi prime ministership would usher in a new style of leadership by an abrasive nationalist drawn from outside the usual Delhi elite.
It would leave Congress, a secular party that has ruled India for all but 13 years since independence, in tatters and raise doubts about whether the Gandhi dynasty can provide the country a fourth prime minister.
“They can’t believe it, they can’t believe that someone from such a simple background could beat them,” Modi’s sister Vasantiben Modi told AFP in an interview at her modest home in Gujarat.
Rahul, the scion of the Gandhi bloodline which has run India for most of its history since independence in 1947, is forecast to lead his party to its worst ever result in his first national campaign.
After years of criticism of his aloof style, the media-shy Cambridge graduate gave further ammunition to his critics by skipping a farewell dinner this week for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India’s third-longest serving premier.
While 81-year-old PM Singh was hailed by U.S. President Barack Obama as a “wise and decent man”, Modi would be an awkward prospect for Washington and other Western powers.
The bachelor, elected three times as chief minister of his state, was boycotted by the US and European powers for a decade over religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
He denies that he turned a blind eye to the bloodshed, and his focus on the campaign trail has been jobs — he has said his only religion is “development”.
But the BJP manifesto includes a pledge to build a temple to honor the Hindu god Ram at the site of a former mosque in northern India, a religious flashpoint that sparked deadly rioting in 1992.
“He has to succeed on the economy and that’s the thing on which he will be judged,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, an academic on India from Paris university’s political science department and King’s College London.
“But what if he fails to relaunch the economy? The Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) plank is the plan B,” he told AFP.