Officials on Thursday began counting hundreds of millions of votes cast in staggered Indian elections with early projections indicating that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by the incumbent prime minister was set for a historic comeback with a landslide electoral victory.
Tens of thousands of poll officials began the vote count at 8 am at thousands of counting centers across the country.
Final results are likely to be clear by Thursday evening even as the official data from the Election Commission of India after first few hours of counting showed the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was leading in more than 280 seats – well above the 272 halfway mark to command a majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha or the lower house of Indian parliament.
If the BJP returns to power with a comfortable majority, it would be for the first time for a single Indian party to do so since 1984 when the Congress won a bulk of seats to form government without a legislative support from other entities.
The results for the BJP and its allies are larger that indicated in exit polls in the run up to the count of over 600 million votes polled in over a month-long elections that ended on May 19. Voting was held for 542 seats as election in one constituency in southern Tamil Nadu was canceled.
In addition, the exit polls had predicted the main opposition, Indian National Congress, likely to win between 80 to 160 seats, which would represent – despite its second humiliating electoral defeat – a certain recovery for the grand old party currently being led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of Nehru-Gandhi family that has ruled the country for much of the post-independent history.
The Congress in 2014 experienced its worst political setback ever with just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.
There has been a growing anxiety among supporters and workers of the Congress, which, according to Election Commission data, was leading in over 50 constituencies, amid fears of electoral fraud in some parts of the country.
"The next 24 hours are important. Be alert. Don't be scared. You're fighting for the truth. Do not be disappointed by the propaganda of fake exit polls. Believe in yourself and the Congress party. Your hard work will not go wasted," Gandhi tweeted on Wednesday.
Dozens of Congress supporters in different parts of the country were camping outside vote counting centers to monitor the electronic voting machines before the count began.
The general elections that took place over a period of six weeks, in seven staggered phases, will determine who will lead the country for the next five years.
Unemployment and agricultural crisis would be among the major challenges for the next government in a country of 1.3 billion people where nearly 13 million youth enter the job market every year.
Though there is no official job data available, but a leaked report of the National Sample Survey Office showed the country was battling 6.1 percent of unemployment rate – the highest in the last 45 years.