AFP – Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed an "inclusive" future for all Indians on Thursday after a landslide election victory that crushed the Gandhi dynasty’s comeback hopes once again.
"Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again!," Modi tweeted as delirious supporters of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrated nationwide.
"The faith placed in our alliance is humbling and gives us strength to work even harder to fulfil people’s aspirations," he said before arriving at BJP headquarters flashing victory signs with both hands and being showered in petals.
Although final results were yet to be published, a rolling vote count by the election commission showed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its majority with 302 out of 543 elected lower house seats.
The BJP’s main rivals Congress were on just 51 seats, with Rahul Gandhi — the great-grandson, grandson and son of three premiers — conceding defeat and congratulating Modi.
In an added personal humiliation Gandhi, 48, also admitted he had lost Amethi, a seat long held by his famous family, to a former television star running for the BJP.
The BJP’s headquarters in Delhi erupted in celebration with drummers, firecrackers, dancing and singing as hundreds of party faithful thronged the yard and nearby streets waiting for Modi.
"Modi will make India great again. Modi is the strongest prime minister India has ever had and will get. We need to support his policies to prosper," said one supporter, Santosh Joshi.
At Congress headquarters, a handful of dejected supporters sat in groups under the shade of trees.
"We are sad but we will rise again. Modi won because of his lies and false promises. The country is in danger now," Rajesh Tiwari, a Congress supporter, told AFP.
India’s main Sensex index breached the 40,000-point level for the first time as the count pointed to a Modi win, following strong gains since Monday.
– Fake news –
The vast size of India — stretching from the Himalayas to the tropics, taking in polluted megacities, deserts and jungles — made the world’s biggest election a marathon six-week endeavour.
The campaign, estimated to have cost more than $7 billion, was awash with insults — Modi was likened to Hitler and a "gutter insect" — as well as fake news in Facebook and WhatsApp’s biggest markets.
Gandhi tried several lines of attack against Modi, in particular over a French defence deal and high unemployment and saying Modi was dividing the officially secular country.
Lynchings of Muslims and low-caste Dalits for eating beef and slaughtering and trading in cattle have risen, with critics saying extremists have been emboldened by the BJP coming to power.
Several cities with names rooted in India’s Islamic Mughal past have been renamed, while some school textbooks have been changed to include references to Hindu right-wing ideology, culture and history.
– The watchman –
But Modi, 68, managed to deftly turn the election into a referendum on his rule while depicting himself, often in the third person, as the only one able to defend India.
In this he was given a major boost when a suicide bombing, claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group, killed 40 Indian paratroopers in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14.
Doubts abound about the efficacy of India’s subsequent air strikes on Pakistan, but the action enabled Modi to style himself the "chowkidar" ("watchman").
"We have shown the world that India is a great country. We have shown Pakistan that they cannot mess with us," said Vishal Sharma, a BJP supporter in Delhi.
"Congress sold the country for all these decades. Now is the time to rebuild the nation."
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday congratulated Modi and said he looked forward to working for "peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia".
His message came just hours after Pakistan’s military said it tested a surface-to-surface ballistic missile capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads — a day after an Indian missile test.
But while Pakistanis consider Modi a hardliner, analysts say his victory could improve relations between the arch foes.
"The expectation in Pakistan is that there will be an incremental improvement in Pakistan-India relations as Modi’s attitude would be more relaxed," retired Pakistani general Talat Masood told AFP.