India’s triumphant Hindu nationalists have declared “a new era” in the world’s biggest democracy after hardline leader Narendra Modi propelled them to a stunning win, promising to revitalise the sickly economy.
Preliminary results on Friday at the end of the marathon six-week election showed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by prime ministerial candidate Modi on track for the first parliamentary majority by a single party in 30 years.
Most of the poverty-wracked country’s 1.2 billion people – more than half of whom are under 25 – have never witnessed such dominance having grown up in an era of fractious coalition politics.
Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea seller tainted by anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, wrote on Twitter that “India has won. Good days are coming.”
The stunning results exceeded all forecasts. Firecrackers exploded at BJP offices around the country, sweets were handed out to celebrate and painted elephants paraded in front of party headquarters.
The triumph redraws India’s political map, elevating the BJP to a pan-national power, handing Modi a huge mandate for change and heaping humiliation on the ruling Gandhi political dynasty.
The immediate change Modi will need to deliver is an improvement in the economy, growing at its slowest rate in a decade, and his commitment to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda will be closely watched by India’s 150 million Muslims.
“It is dawn of a new era. The lotus has bloomed all over India now,” said BJP president Rajnath Singh, referring to the flower symbol of his party whose previous all-time high was 182 seats in 1999.
“I appeal to my workers that even in this historic victory they maintain discipline and calm, against any section or people,” he added, hinting at the fears of religious tensions.
Preliminary figures from the Election Commission showed the BJP winning more than the 272 seats required for a majority on its own in the 543-seat parliament, with victories by its allies taking it easily in excess of 330.
The Congress party, the national secular force that has run India for all but 13 years since independence, was set to crash to its worst ever result after a decade in power.
“Modi promised the moon and stars to the people. People bought that dream,” senior Congress leader and spokesman Rajeev Shukla told reporters as preliminary results showed the party winning only 42 seats.
Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said in January that Modi would be “disastrous for the country” after “presiding over the massacre of innocents”, called to congratulate him, his office said.
India’s main Bombay Stock Exchange index, which has risen five per cent in the past week, surged more than six per cent in the morning but tapered its gains to close up 0.9 per cent.
Investors and the wider public have rediscovered heady – many say unrealistic – optimism about the world’s second-most populous nation after years of frustration about weak leadership, rising food prices and corruption.
India is in the grip of stagflation – growth has slumped to 4.9 per cent from 9 per cent two years ago and consumer inflation is at a wage-eroding 8.6 per cent.
The disastrous showing for Congress is a humiliating blow to the scion of the Gandhi dynasty, 43-year-old Rahul, whose first performance as chief national campaigner will lead to acrimonious fallout.
Modi has reinvented himself from a controversial regional leader accused of turning a blind eye to religious riots in 2002 to an aspiring prime minister intent on helping India fulfil its potential.
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 have failed to dent his rise.
While Singh, 81, was hailed by US President Barack Obama as a “wise and decent man”, Modi presents an awkward prospect for Washington and other Western powers.