NEW DELHI - India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is poised to sweep to power in New Delhi, exit polls indicated on Monday, after the country's five-week long national election ended with record polling following a presidential-style campaign in the world's biggest democracy.
The BJP, whose prime ministerial candidate is Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, will sweep up enough in the 543-seat parliament to cobble a majority with the help of coalition allies, exit polls suggested.
Research group C-Voter predicted 289 seats for the National Democratic Alliance headed by the BJP, while another poll, by Cicero for the India Today group, showed the NDA hitting between 261 and 283 seats. A simple majority of 272 seats is needed to form a government.
The ruling Congress is projected for massive losses, with the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala giving it some relief while facing routs in the big southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
People in New Delhi, the seat of the federal government, received the news amid light rain outside their windows, signaling the oncoming monsoon, a period of renewal.
The exit polls, if they prove accurate, could give India a stable government with the requisite number to push through important legislation to kickstart its slowing economy, pass unpopular reforms and rapidly build up the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Official results are to be announced on Friday.
Investors, anticipating BJP's strong showing, have pumped up Indian stocks to unprecedented levels. The benchmark Sensex ended at 23,551 on Monday, beating last Friday's record close by a further 2.4 per cent.
The ruling Congress Party, besieged by an anti-incumbency wave brought on by widespread perceptions of graft and a stagnating economy, looks set to be a rump outfit in the populous northern Indian heartland.
Emblematic of its fortunes was national capital Delhi, where it held all seven seats in the outgoing parliament, and looks set to be voted out in each of them. The top leadership of the Congress Party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, met on Monday evening to discuss its post-election strategy.
The exit polls were announced half-an-hour after the elections, conducted over nine phases, wound to a close with an unprecedented 66 per cent turnout from the 814 million eligible to cast ballots, the world's biggest election. Fully 100 million of those eligible were first-time voters.
Observers caution, however, that earlier exit polls have not always proved reliable.
In 2004, the ruling BJP-led front was projected to win, but lost to a Congress coalition, and in 2009, polls failed to anticipate the degree of Congress's success as it retained power by raising its seats by a third.
Earlier in the day, voters stood in searing heat in the plains of northern India to vote, galvanised by the polarising figure of opposition front-runner Narendra Modi, three-time chief minister of Gujarat.
Nearly two-thirds of those eligible voted, with the thinnest attendance in the Kashmir Valley. Parts of India, including West Bengal state, saw as much as 80 per cent polling as India's Muslim minority, worried over the prospects of life under a Hindu nationalist, turned out to vote. Some 14 per cent of Indians are Muslim, but the proportion is higher in states such as populous Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
While the polls have been relatively peaceful in most parts of India, passions have run high also thanks to the bitter animosity between the Gandhi family that dominates the ruling Congress Party and Mr Modi.