NEW DELHI — Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi looked set to sweep to victory in India's elections on Friday, riding a wave of public support for his message of jobs and development that has drowned out his past as a religious right-winger.
Vote counting started at 8:00am (0230 GMT) at the climax of the marathon six-week election, which saw a record 551 million people file through polling booths from the Himalayas to the country's southern tip.
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 statesman intent on helping India fulfil its potential.
Surveys indicate that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is heading for its best ever result in a parliamentary election after 10 years of rule by the leftist Congress party and the Gandhi political dynasty.
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.
"I've been to Gujarat and I saw good roads, good infrastructure and good hotels – it was quite like America," said Ajit Singh, a wrestling coach who spoke to AFP on the streets of New Delhi.
Stock markets have risen 5.0 per cent in the past week as heady – many say unrealistic – optimism has returned to a public frustrated by low economic growth, rising food prices and corruption.
Modi's promises to revive the flagging economy have won him corporate cheerleaders.
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.
The BJP's previous best showing was in elections in 1998 and 1999 when it won 182 seats and ran the country until a defeat to Congress in 2004.
Exit polls, which failed to predict the 2004 reversal, forecast that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) should reach a majority of 272 seats – with other allies keen to join.
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. — AFP