India’s conservative opposition party won national elections in a landslide, results showed Friday, riding a message of optimism and clean, business-friendly governance to a historic parliamentary majority that could profoundly change the direction of the world’s largest democracy.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s charismatic, controversial leader, Narendra Modi, was set to become India’s next prime minister after defeating the long-governing Indian National Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s grandson.
Fed up with corruption scandals and flagging economic growth under the Congress party, Indian voters handed the Hindu nationalist BJP a mandate more sweeping than even some of its staunchest supporters expected. With nearly all the 550 million votes counted from six weeks of phased balloting, the BJP was poised to win 282 seats, well above the 272 needed to form a majority, officials said.
In India’s fractious political system, usually led by shaky coalitions, it was the first time a party captured a majority by itself since 1984.
Modi, addressing a throng of roaring supporters in Vadodara, the western city where he won a parliamentary seat, pledged to move beyond a bitter campaign that pit traditionalists favoring a secular, liberal India against a disparate coalition of Hindu conservatives, reformists and young voters who flocked to the BJP.
“I want to assure the people of this country that it is our motto to carry everyone along, no matter how much they oppose us,” Modi said.
The results marked a devastating setback for the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has led India for most of its post-independence history. Under the diffident leadership of 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, Congress was routed in its rural strongholds and won fewer than 50 seats, by far its worst showing, leading many Indians to speculate on the family’s political future.
“The Congress has been decimated, and if you look at the races nationwide, all those who were close to the Gandhi family have really been hit hard,” said Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and writer.
Modi, 63, for more than a decade the chief executive of the western state of Gujarat, ran a vigorous, social-media savvy campaign that resonated with the two-thirds of Indians younger than 35 who lack any memory of the Congress party’s role in India’s freedom struggle and are more interested in private-sector jobs, efficient governance and stamping out corruption.
Gray-bearded and abstemious, Modi nonetheless seized the mantle of youth, proclaiming Friday that this was the first time India would be run by someone born after 1947, when India gained independence.
“Considering how we have been looted and betrayed the last 10 years, he evokes the hope of a better future and better governance, especially if you look at his record in Gujarat,” said Modi supporter Ajay Joshi, a 24-year-old investment bank employee.
Voters shrugged off the less savory aspects of Modi’s biography, including his alleged role in 2002 communal riots in Gujarat that left at least 1,000 dead, mainly Muslims. In 2005, the United States denied Modi a visa due to allegations that he allowed the killings, but in February, as his ascension to India’s top political job seemed to become inevitable, the State Department ended a decade-long boycott of Modi by sending the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi to meet with him.
President Obama called Modi to congratulate him and invited him "to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship," the White House said in a statement.
His victory margin indicated that Modi, who sidelined political rivals and was accused of authoritarianism while running Gujarat, would have a free hand in naming a government and tackling India’s economic problems -- at least for a little while.
“It indicates to me, and certainly to him, that India wants him to be in charge in a way it has not wanted someone in charge in a long time,” said Aakar Patel, a prominent columnist.
India’s main stock market index reached a record high Friday on news of Modi’s victory. At BJP headquarters in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, confident party workers brought in ladoos -- traditional Indian sweets -- before the first tallies were released.
By mid-afternoon, the scope of their victory clear, jubilant supporters played drums, set off fireworks and danced amid a deluge of flags and banners painted in saffron, the party color.
Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.