NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi clinched a second term on Thursday (May 23) with what appears to be a historic landslide in the country's general elections as votes were counted in the biggest democratic exercise in the world.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by Mr Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was ahead in 345 seats, with the opposition United Progressive Alliance winning in 89, at 2pm (4.30pm Singapore time) on Thursday, about six hours after the counting of about 600 million votes began.
The BJP party extended its lead in more than 298 seats, easily ahead of the 272 seats needed to form a government. The Congress is ahead in 52 seats.
“India wins yet again,” Mr Modi said in a tweet. “Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong India.”
Mr Modi's challenger, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, conceded defeat at a press conference.
"Frankly, today is the not the day to discuss what I think went wrong because people of India have clearly decided that Narendra Modi is going to be their Prime Minister and as an Indian I respect that," said Mr Gandhi.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Mr Modi to congratulate him on his re-election. Chinese President Xi Jinping was also among the world leaders to congratulate Mr Modi on his victory, as was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan also extended his congratulations.
Election Commission officials are going through postal ballots and Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) votes in 77 counting halls, with results expected only later in the evening on Thursday.
For the first time, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips, a paper record of a vote, will also be counted. This will be done in randomly selected polling booths, which is expected to make the counting process lengthier.
The BJP, according to trends, is nearly sweeping the states of Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka in the south.
But the BJP onslaught seemed to be less effective in some parts of southern India, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress alliance leading in Tamil Nadu and the Congress doing well in Kerala.
The voting trend is likely to change several times during the counting process.
Elections were held from April 11 in the world's largest democracy across seven phases over six weeks to choose India's next government.
Mr Modi, the 68-year-old leader of the BJP, dominated the elections, in which issues receded to the foreground during the last phases of campaigning and personalities of the main candidates took over.
Around 67.34 per cent of 900 million eligible voters had voted for over 8,000 candidates who took part in these elections.
Exit polls have predicted a win for Mr Modi, with some even suggesting that the BJP would do even better in these elections than in 2014, when the BJP thundered to victory with a landslide win and decimated opposition parties.
In 2014, the BJP came to power winning 282 out of the 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, while the Congress - which had dominated Indian politics - was reduced to just 44 seats.
BJP CONFIDENT OF A WIN
In an indication of its confidence, the BJP started planning for the next five years of government on Wednesday.
The BJP and its allies have held discussions on the agenda of the future government, from pushing for economic growth to dealing with the farm crisis and improving incomes of farmers.
Reports said the party has also asked thousands of its party workers to turn up at its headquarters in New Delhi in anticipation of a win.
Separately, members of the Delhi wing of the BJP told the media that orders have been placed for 350kg of Indian sweets to celebrate the party's win in all seven parliamentary seats in the capital city.
Still, opposition parties, including the Congress, had dismissed the exit polls, which have a mixed record in predicting election outcomes.
MOOD IN THE OPPOSITION CAMP
There was silence from the Congress camp as the counting process progressed in favour of the BJP.
Congress leader Gandhi - who campaigned vigorously against Mr Modi - and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress general secretary-in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, had on Wednesday told party workers not to lose faith.
"Don't let rumours and exit polls discourage you. This is being done just to break your determination. We are confident that our combined efforts will bear fruit," Mrs Vadra was quoted as saying.
Other opposition leaders have also dismissed exit polls and continued talks on possible post-poll alliances.
But as voting trends suggested a BJP sweep, at least one opposition leader has called the elections.
"So the exit polls were correct. All that's left is to congratulate the BJP and NDA for a stellar performance. Give credit where credit is due. PM Modi and Mr Amit Shah put together a winning alliance and a very professional campaign. Bring on the next five years," tweeted National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.
The Congress' Captain Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of the northern breadbasket state of Punjab, told India Today TV news channel: "We have lost the battle.”
Mr Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, tweeted on Thursday afternoon: "Thank you India, Phir ek bar modi sarkar (once again a Modi government)."
CONTROVERSY OVER PAPER TRIALS
The elections have been mired in controversy over possible manipulation of EVMs. The voting machines were supposed to be kept in secure rooms to be opened only on the day of counting.
However, ahead of the counting, around two dozen opposition parties complained about alleged manipulation of the EVMs, a charge dismissed by the Election Commission.
A series of videos had emerged of voting machines being transported in private cars in some parts of the country, but the commission said the videos have nothing to do with the elections. It reiterated that the machines cannot be manipulated.
Still, VVPATs were ordered to be used at all polling stations for the first time.
The VVPAT gives a paper record of the voter's choice and can be seen by a voter for seven seconds before the slip goes into a sealed ballot compartment of the machine.
The VVPAT slips are to be counted, according to a Supreme Court direction, in five randomly selected polling booths per assembly segment that makes up a parliamentary constituency.
HOW THE CAMPAIGNS SHAPED UP
The voting machine controversy is an indication of how acrimonious the election campaign has been and the deep distrust that exist between the opposition and ruling parties.
During campaigning, political leaders took potshots at each other in what many have described as the most negative elections in recent times.
Mr Gandhi accused Mr Modi of being a "chor", or thief, for impropriety in a defence deal.
The Congress president ran a campaign with the theme "chowkidar chor hai", or "the watchman is a thief".
To counter this, the BJP rolled outits campaign slogan "Main bhi chowkidar" or "I am a watchman too", to put across the message that Mr Modi and the BJP would guard the country and keep it safe.
Mr Modi also took aim at Mr Gandhi's father Rajiv, a former Prime Minister who was assassinated on the campaign trail, calling him India's most corrupt man for allegedly using a warship during a family holiday.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES
When campaigning started, rising unemployment and the farm debt crisis were issues that seemed set to dominate.
Jobs creation has not kept pace with the millions entering the employment market each year. Rural India has also seen discontent, with farmers labouring under lower prices for their produce and rising debt.
The BJP entered the general elections following heavy losses to the Congress in three state elections. But it managed to shift the focus from the jobs deficit and farm crisis.
The BJP instead successfully pitched its political campaign on the popularity of Mr Modi and the issue of national security, following the outbreak of hostilities with Pakistan over the killing of 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir in April.
India had launched air strikes on Pakistan territory at what it said were terror camps, leading to an upsurge in nationalist sentiment within the country. The BJP presented this as an example of Mr Modi's strong governance.
Hindu nationalism also played an important part in the elections. The BJP had nominated terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur as its candidate for Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Thakur is awaiting trial for a series of bombings in 2008 by right-wing groups that killed six people and injured more than 100. She is leading in Bhopal over her Congress rival Digvijay Singh.
The Congress started its campaign by focusing on alleged impropriety over the sale of fighter jets to India. But finding little resonance on the ground, it switched its campaign focus to job creation and the crisis affecting farmers.
Mr Gandhi also announced a minimum income guarantee scheme, promising 72,000 Indian rupees (S$1,430) a year for the poorest in India. While this was seen as a game-changer, ground reports indicated that the Congress failed to widely publicise the scheme well enough among the intended beneficiaries.
The two main political parties also used caste and religion to attract voters.
SOME KEY BATTLEGROUNDS
While results are still coming in, it is clear that key battlegrounds include the state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to Parliament, the biggest number of any state.
Regional rivals Samajwadi party and the Bahujan Samaj Party came together to form an alliance to take on the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won 72 seats in 2014.
But current results are suggesting that they have been unable to stop the BJP onslaught.
The Congress also tried to revive its fortunes in the state by bringing in Mrs Vadra, who campaigned extensively in Uttar Pradesh.
Mrs Vadra looks like her grandmother Indira Gandhi, who was known as a strong leader.
The other battleground is West Bengal, where the BJP is predicted to have expanded its influence to counter Ms Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamool Congress and chief minister of the state.
The intensity during campaigning resulted in violence between BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadres in West Bengal, which has 42 parliamentary constituencies.
The BJP in early trends is leading in 19 constituencies while the TMC is leading in 22. Mr Modi's party is hoping to increase its influence in the north-eastern states of India.
WHAT IS AT STAKE
The elections are a test for Mr Modi and his popularity as a leader.
It will be a historic first if his BJP party returns to power, as it would be the first time that a BJP government has won a consecutive term.
In the 2004 elections, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP failed to return to power in spite of exit poll results indicating he had won.
A defeat for Congress would prove a massive setback for Mr Gandhi, whose family has led the party for generations and produced three prime ministers.
The current polls had Mr Gandhi leading the Congress campaign for the first time in a general election. His mother Sonia Gandhi, a past Congress president who led the party to two victories, was rarely seen.
His ability to lead the party will be questioned in the event of a defeat.
Although Congress has been dependent on the Nehru-Gandhi family for its fortunes, there is likely to be debate over whether the party needs to rethink dynastic politics and allow other political leaders to rise.
For regional leaders like Ms Mamata Bannerjee of the Trinamool Congress and Mr N Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party, these elections will decide if they have a say in federal politics.
Mr Naidu's position as the chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh is also at stake.
The counting of ballots in the state elections, held simultaneously with the general elections, is also taking place on Thursday.
Numbers coming in show Mr Naidu is trailing Mr Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress in the state elections.
With the initial euphoria over the prospects of a landslide victory dying down, gains in Indian assets have begun to evaporate. The benchmark Sensex equity index has seen much of the gains in its climb to a record nearly wiped out.