LONDON — Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked set to beat expectations and secure a decisive electoral victory Thursday morning, setting up his Hindu nationalist party to govern India for another five years.
That would be more than the 282 it won in the last general election in 2014 and more than the 272 seats needed for a majority in India's Parliament.
However, the main opposition coalition, led by Rahul Ghandi's Congress party, is yet to concede.
"I don't think even in the wildest dreams of BJP leaders they thought they would do this well," said Sayan Banerjee, a political scientist at the University of Essex who focuses on India and South Asia, cautioning that all the votes were yet to be counted.
The election is the world's largest democratic exercise, with some 900 million people eligible to cast their votes over six weeks in the country of 1.3 billion people.
The vote was seen as a referendum on Modi, whose economic reforms have had mixed results, but whose roots as a social underdog in India's highly hierarchical society boosted his popularity. The son of a tea seller, Modi was propelled to power in 2014 and has presented himself as a pro-business leader who is strong enough to defend the country against Pakistan, India's Muslim-majority arch-rival.
The success of the BJP comes off the back of a flare up of long-standing tensions between nuclear-armed enemies India and Pakistan. Earlier this year, Pakistan-based militants killed dozens of Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir. Modi responded by launching airstrikes targeting what New Delhi claimed were militant training camps in Pakistani territory.
"This definitely turned the tide and projected Modi as a strong leader," said Banerjee. "It was definitely appreciated by BJP voters who were wavering."
The poor showing by the opposition Congress party will raise questions about the leadership of Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty whose father, grandmother and great grandfather all served as prime minister.
"Gandhi is seen as runner-up in terms of strength and charisma compared to Narendra Modi," said Banerjee. "The dominant narrative is that Gandhi is a rich guy from a famous political party … people feel that he doesn't deserve it and he doesn't get what the people want."
As for what a landslide victory for the BJP could mean for India, critics have said Modi's Hindu-first platform risks exacerbating social tensions in the country where Hindus comprise about 80 percent of the population.
"Life could become more uncomfortable for Muslims in terms of rhetoric, relations with neighbors and in terms of civil rights," in some regions of the country, said Banerjee.
The dominant socially-conservative wing of the BJP hopes to turn the structure of Indian society from a caste-based hierarchy to a cleavage based on religion, he said. This is because it would help them retain power in the future, he added.
However, Banerjee cautioned, that vision would be difficult to achieve in a country where the caste structure is deeply rooted.