Modi's party celebrates sweeping re-election victory in India

Narendra Modi, India's charismatic but polarizing prime minister, was headed Friday for a landslide election victory, propelling his Hindu nationalist party to back-to-back majorities in parliament for the first time in decades.

Estimated 600 million ballots cast in massive, multi-stage vote

Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah, centre left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, and others celebrate after the election results in New Delhi on Thursday pegged Modi as the winner. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Narendra Modi, India's charismatic but polarizing prime minister, was headed Friday for a landslide election victory, propelling his Hindu nationalist party to back-to-back majorities in parliament for the first time in decades.

With most of the votes counted, Modi's stunning re-election mirrored a global trend of right-wing populists sweeping to victory, from the United States to Brazil to Italy, often on a platform promoting a tough stand on national security, protectionist trade policies and putting up barriers to immigration.

The victory in India was widely seen as a referendum on Modi's Hindu-first politics, which some observers say have bred intolerance toward Muslims and other religious minorities, and on his muscular stance on neighbouring Pakistan, with whom India nearly went to war earlier this year.

"India wins yet again," Modi exulted in a tweet.

Election Commission data by Friday morning showed Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 287 out of the 525 seats in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament. The party's top rival, the Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, won 50 seats, and the All India Trinamool Congress, led by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, won 19 seats. The final results are not in for the remaining 42 seats.

The final tally was not expected until later on Friday.

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Election staff members count votes at a vote counting centre in Mumbai on Thursday. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

An estimated 600 million voters cast ballots in India's six-week polls, a testimony to the vibrancy of the world's largest democracy just 72 years since India won independence from British colonial rule. The country has a population of about 1.3 billion people.

Canada applauds Modi victory

Addressing thousands of party workers celebrating the outcome, Modi urged the world to "recognize India's democratic power."

He attributed the party's showing to his policies aimed at improving the lot of the nation's poor, including free medical insurance, relief for distressed farmers and a highly popular program to build 100 million toilets in a nation where basic sanitation remains a major problem.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement Thursday congratulating Modi on his victory, adding he looks forward to continuing to work with him.

"Canada and India share tremendous people-to-people ties, with over one million people of Indian descent calling Canada home," Trudeau's statement said. "Our longstanding friendship, together with our shared values, will continue to bring our two countries closer and help create new opportunities for our people."

BJP supporters celebrate after learning the initial election results in New Delhi. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The election victory was a resounding endorsement of the 68-year-old Modi, whose economic reforms have had mixed results but whose background as a social underdog from a lower-caste Hindu family has inspired some in India's highly stratified society, appealing to tens of millions of Indians seeking upward mobility.

Fears of violence

However, critics have said his Hindu-first platform risks exacerbating social tensions in the country.

Since Modi led the BJP to power in 2014, Hindu mobs have lynched dozens of Muslims and lower-caste Dalits — people in India's strict social hierarchy once considered "untouchable" — for consuming or slaughtering cows, which Hindus consider sacred.

Modi has largely shown complacency toward rising incidents of violence and discrimination against minorities. Activists, lawyers, journalists and academics have been harassed and even prosecuted under anti-terrorism and anti-sedition laws that Human Rights Watch calls draconian.

But on the campaign trail, Modi presented himself as a self-made man with the confidence to cut red tape and unleash India's economic potential, and labelled Congress's Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family political dynasty that lost power in 2014, as an out-of-touch elite.

Modi 'always connected to the people'

Outside BJP headquarters in New Delhi, hundreds of people cheered and shouted party slogans, lifting cardboard cut-outs of Modi and BJP President Amit Shah into the air as other people played drums and set off fireworks.

Mohit Sharma, a 29-year-old who runs a bathroom fittings business, said India had never had a prime minister like Modi.

"In the past, when leaders after they won elections, they sat in air-conditioned rooms, and they never reached out to people, but Modi was never like that. He was always connected to the people through social media," Sharma said.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters celebrate Modi's victory after learning the election results at party headquarters in New Delhi on Thursday. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Fashion designer Sandeep Verma, 39, said he wasn't a BJP supporter but had voted for the party in these elections.

"A country like India needs a decisive leader, and the people did not find that in Rahul Gandhi. There was no alternative to Modi," Verma said.

The BJP harnessed social media, including Twitter, where Modi has the world's second-highest number of followers, and WhatsApp to reach out to millions of supporters.

Meanwhile, at Congress headquarters, only a few party workers stood outside looking dejected.

Jagdish Sharma, 50, blamed the counting method, using electronic voting machines (EVM), saying "Rahul Gandhi is the crowd's favourite, but has always lost only due to EVMs. While EVMs exist even Lord Vishnu can't defeat Modi," he said, referring to a powerful Hindu god.

With files from Reuters