NEW DELHI // Narendra Modi is set to become India’s next prime minister as election results released yesterday showed his Bharatiya Janata Party headed for the biggest margin of victory by any party in 30 years.
With results declared for 492 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, the Hindu nationalist BJP had won 275, giving it an outright majority even without its allies.
By contrast the Congress party, which has headed the government for the past 10 years, had won just 42 seats and was leading in two, the worst showing in its history.
The BJP’s massive mandate raises expectations that Mr Modi, 63, who was elected from both constituencies he contested, will begin implementing his promised programmes of economic reform and development as soon as he assumes office.
It also raises fears of worsening sectarian tensions between India’s majority Hindus and its roughly 180 million Muslims.
As his party’s overwhelming win became clear, Mr Modi appeared before cheering supporters and tried to strike a conciliatory note.
“I have always said that to govern the nation it is our responsibility to take everyone with us,” Mr Modi said. “I want your blessings so that we can run a government that carries everyone with it.”
The BJP’s win is the most comprehensive by a party in any general election since 1984, when the Congress won 404 seats, soon after the assassination of its leader India Gandhi. Even the most generous exit polls had given the BJP’s full coalition a maximum of around 280-285 seats.
The counting of the roughly 550 million ballots cast in a record 66.38 per cent voter turnout began at 8am yesterday. Barely two hours later, the trends were so overwhelming that analysts and television anchors were confidently calling the election for the BJP.
Both stock markets and the Indian rupee rose on the news of an imminent Modi victory, with the Mumbai stock exchange index surging 6 per cent before closing 0.9 per cent higher.
The euphoria at various BJP offices across the country had started even earlier, based on exit poll results released earlier this week. In Delhi, the party had stocked up on 2,500 kilograms of laddoos, a round sweetmeat conveniently coloured saffron, the party colour. Fireworks were laid in stock, and bands of drummers gathered near the office, preparing for the celebrations.
Mr Modi will travel to Delhi on Saturday to begin the process of assuming power.
The margin of his party’s victory was accentuated by the dismal performance of the Congress, which has led India’s government for all but 10 years since it attained independence in 1947.
The Congress campaign was led by its vice president Rahul Gandhi, 43, the son of the party president Sonia Gandhi and the heir apparent in the party’s tradition of dynastic succession.
“I wish the new government all the best,” Mr Gandhi said on Friday afternoon, adding that he held himself responsible for the party’s losses.
Immediately afterwards, Sonia Gandhi took the microphone and said she assumed responsibility.
The two took no questions after their brief remarks and Rahul trailed his mother off the stage.
“We are ready to sit in the opposition,” said Rajiv Shukla, a Congress spokesman. “Mr Modi promised the moon and stars to the people. People bought that dream.”
Mr Modi had campaigned on a platform of providing the sort of economic development seen in Gujarat since he became the state’s chief minister in 2001, and corruption-free governance – a key issue following a number of major scandals involving the outgoing government.
“This was the reason we voted for the BJP,” said Suraj Yadav, who had travelled to Delhi from the neighbouring state of Haryana to celebrate outside the BJP’s headquarters.
Mr Yadav, 27, an itinerant construction worker, has found the lack of regular work unsettling.
"There have been no jobs," he told The National. "And Modi promises to change that. I'm hoping he keeps his promise."
Mr Modi has, however, been a polarising politician, with his critics accusing him of anti-Muslim. The biggest stain in his career comes from the riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people were killed, mainly Muslims. Mr Modi has been accused of failing to stop, or even colluding in, the rioters’ attacks.
His roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organisation, also fuel the concerns of his critics.
A senior RSS leader, MG Vaidya, told The Hindu newspaper on Wednesday that Mr Modi would be expected to advance the construction of a temple to the Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya, on the site where a mosque was torn down by RSS workers in 1992.
The BJP-led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, will try to advance some aspects of the agenda of the Hindu right, said Chris Ogden, a lecturer in South Asian security at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.
“As occurred during their first regime [between 1999 and 2004], with a new NDA we can expect to see the wholesale promotion of their political supporters, attempts to influence the legal and education system, and the rewriting of history textbooks,” Mr Ogden said. “The implementation of their Hindu nationalist agenda would be rapid, comprehensive and extensive.”
The Congress, meanwhile, stares at a period of grim introspection. Its poor and corrupt governance over the past five years, coupled with inept leadership, has decimated party morale.
The Congress headquarters were deserted yesterday, and an air of aimlessness hung over the premises, a vast contrast from the BJP’s offices not far away.
Foremost among the questions facing the Congress is the role of Rahul Gandhi. His leadership was of the campaign was often lacklustre and his ideas feeble, especially when compared to the dynamic Mr Modi.
Mr Modi’s party appeared set to win more than 80 per cent of the seats in which he personally campaigned. By comparison, the Congress was winning roughly 11 per cent of the seats in which Mr Gandhi campaigned.
“It’s obvious that the Gandhis aren’t quite working for the party anymore,” said B Ravi, 47, a Chennai-based businessman, who like his father has always had a soft spot for the Congress. “Something has to change.”
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press