Updated: 05/16/2014 11:43 | By Agence France-Presse

Modi poised for victory as India veers right

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi looked set to sweep to victory in India's elections 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.

Modi poised for victory as India veers right

Election officials wait to open an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) at a counting centre in Ghaziabad, on May 16, 2014 - by Prakash Singh

Vote counting started at 8:00 am (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 percent 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.

- Gandhi defeat -

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. 

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.

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 on Thursday.

Rahul, the scion of the Gandhi bloodline, 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.

Sachin Pilot, a Congress party minister and close ally of Gandhi, admitted that the party faced a backlash after 10 years in power.  

"There is a bit of fatigue that got into our system," he told the NDTV channel.

- Sectarian bloodshed -

While 81-year-old PM Singh was hailed by US 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 honour 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 Sciences Po university in Paris 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.

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