Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party to a historic landslide re-election, affirming his huge popularity in the eyes of India’s voters, after a bitterly fought electoral contest framed as a referendum on his leadership.
While vote-counting will go on throughout the day, the BJP, and its political partners in the National Democratic Alliance, are leading in more than 340 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament.
The decisive mandate will ensure Mr Modi has another five years to press ahead with its drive to build a “New India”.
The BJP itself appears set to secure its second consecutive single-party parliamentary majority, as it leads in about 288 parliamentary seats.
If confirmed, the results would mark the first time in India’s 72-year history as an independent nation that any party other than the Indian National Congress — which led the struggle against British rule — has secured two consecutive single-party majorities in parliament.
“The BJP has replaced the Congress as the pole around which politics revolves in the country,” says Milan Vaishnav, the author of several books on Indian politics.
While neither Mr Modi nor the BJP President Amit Shah has yet commented on the results, Rajnath Singh, a former BJP president, and interior minister in Mr Modi’s outgoing administration, took to Twitter to effectively declare victory.
“I thank the people of India for once again giving a decisive mandate to @BJP4India-led NDA, and reposing faith in Shri @narendramodi’s leadership and his vision of a New India,” Mr Singh tweeted. “Shri Modi is now all set to build new India.”
About 67 per cent of India’s more than 900m eligible voters cast their ballots in the protracted six-week voting process that ended on May 19. Given the number of votes involved and the size of each constituency, the count could take all day — and stretch into the night.
The rise in the Sensex on Thursday as markets expected a Modi victory
The Bombay Stock Exchange’s benchmark Sensex index, which jumped 3.75 per cent on Monday after exit polls predicted a comfortable BJP victory, rose nearly 2.5 per cent in morning trading on Thursday, as the early trends raised expectations of a Modi victory, before dropping back to 0.6 per cent higher in afternoon trade.
If confirmed, the result will deal a bitter blow to the 134-year-old Congress, which had dominated Indian politics for decades after independence.
Now led by political princeling Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all became prime minister, Congress looks set for only a marginal improvement from its battering in 2014, when it won just 44 seats, the worst result in its history. As of early afternoon, Congress was leading in just 54 seats.
To add to the humiliation, Mr Gandhi is facing a nail-bitingly tight contest in his own longtime family constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The seat has been held by members of his family for nearly 50 years — including by his uncle, father and mother. But former soap opera star and cabinet minister Smriti Irani, who had camped in the impoverished constituency for more than a month in a campaign to defeat him, is running neck-and-neck against him.
India’s massive general election was held against the backdrop of widespread rural distress after several consecutive years of drought, and depressed commodity prices, put the squeeze on farmers’ incomes, and hopes of widespread job creation failed to materialise.
But a February military showdown with India’s neighbouring Pakistan — and India’s missile strike against an alleged terror training camp — led to a surge of nationalistic feeling, which allowed Mr Modi to deftly turn public attention away from his economic record to issues of national security.
“It was a very critical turning point,” said Yogendra Yadav, leader of Swaraj India, which advocates for higher probity in political life. “Towards the end of January, there was a critical point where the BJP could do nothing right. But with the missile strike, the negative spiral is stopped and turns into a positive spiral. The BJP got in control of the narrative, and it foregrounded the question of who is going to be the prime minister?’”
Riding on Mr Modi’s image as upright and hardworking, the BJP has retained much of its support in the poor and conservative Hindi-speaking heartland, which had been its traditional stronghold, but where the Congress had won a trio of state elections in December.
Although the BJP looks set to lose some seats in Uttar Pradesh, where two rival opposition parties have united to defeat it, Mr Modi’s party has compensated for those losses, with inroads into West Bengal and Odisha, where it previously had limited support.
Arun Jaitley, finance minister in Mr Modi’s outgoing administration, had earlier this week expressed optimism about the BJP’s imminent victory
“The electorate keeps national interest paramount before exercising a choice on whom to vote for,” he said. “When well-meaning people with similar ideas vote in the same direction, it leads to the making of a wave.”
BDST: 1328/1427 HRS, MAY 23, 2019