THOUSANDS of cheering supporters have welcomed India’s next prime minister on his arrival in the capital after leading his party to a staggering victory in national elections.
Narendra Modi flashed a victory sign as he drove past jubilant supporters outside the New Delhi airport.
He will meet leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to discuss the formation of a new government.
The right-wing BJP wiped out the centre-left Congress party that has long dominated India’s politics since independence. The victory parade comes a day after the BJP crossed the 272-seat majority needed to create a government without forming a coalition with smaller parties.
With most of the 543 seats declared last night, the BJP stood at 282 seats and led in four more. Its allies held 55 seats.
Congress – which has ruled India for 49 of the 67 years since independence from Britain in 1947 – won just 44 seats.
Critics say its failure to deal with rampant inflation turned both poor and middle-class voters against it.
Modi, a career politician whose campaign promised a revival of economic growth, will have a strong mandate to govern at a time of profound changes in Indian society.
Many young Indians in Mumbai, New Delhi and rural India have seen Modi’s transformation of his Gujarat state into an industrial powerhouse and hope he will do the same for the country as a whole.
Modi also has said he wants to strengthen India’s strategic partnership with the United States.
But critics worry the rise of his Hindu nationalist party could worsen sectarian tensions with India’s minority 138 million Muslims.
The results were a crushing defeat for the Congress party, which is deeply entwined with the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has been at the centre of Indian politics for most of the country’s post-independence history.
The government, led by outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh, has been plagued by corruption scandals and a poor economy.
As his overwhelming win became clear, Modi appeared before a crowd of cheering supporters and tried to strike a conciliatory note.
“I have always said that to govern the nation it is our responsibility to take everyone with us,” he said after a lengthy and punishing race.
“I want your blessings so that we can run a government that carries everyone with it.”
Nevertheless, Modi remains a divisive figure in the country of 1.2 billion people, in large part because he, as chief minister of Gujarat state, was in command in 2002 when communal rioting there killed more than 1,000 people – most of them Muslims.
Modi was accused of doing little to stop the rampage, though he denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.
He was denied a US visa in 2005 for alleged complicity in the riots, although as prime minister he would be virtually assured a future visa.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama called Modi to congratulate him on his victory and invited him “to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship”, the White House said.
In India, the question now is whether Modi can be a truly secular leader in a country with many faiths. Congress tried to highlight the 2002 riots during the campaign, but Modi’s momentum – and laser focus on the ailing economy – carried him to victory.
There was a record turnout in the election, with 66.38 per cent of India’s 814 million eligible voters casting ballots during the six-week contest, which began on 7 April and was held in stages across the country.
Turnout in the 2009 general election was 58.13 per cent.
The last time any single party won a majority in India was in 1984, when an emotional nation gave Congress a staggering victory of more than 400 seats following the assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi.
But 30 years later, India is now in the throes of rapid urbanisation and globalisation just as the youth population is sky-rocketing.
Many new voters are far less deferential to traditional voting patterns focused on family lineage and caste.
For young Indian voters, the priorities are jobs and development, which Modi put at the forefront of his campaign.
The BJP has promised to change tough labour laws that make foreign manufacturers reluctant to set up factories in India. Manufacturing makes up only 15 per cent of India’s economy, compared to 31 per cent in China.
Attracting manufacturing investment is key to creating jobs for the 13 million young Indians entering the workforce each year, and foreign investors have been pouring billions of pounds into Indian stocks and bonds in anticipation of a Modi victory.
Although he focused strongly on the economy, Modi has given some hints of his foreign policy leanings, saying he wants to build on the foundations laid by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last BJP prime minister.
Vajpayee, who governed from 1998 to 2004, rode a bus across the border to Pakistan in what was seen as a bold step in trying to mend ties with India’s long-time, mainly Muslim enemy.
Modi said during the campaign that India did not want a war with regional giant China but that his government would be prepared to deal with what he called Beijing’s possible expansionist designs.
The leader of the Congress campaign, Rahul Gandhi, 43, who studied at Cambridge University, failed to inspire public confidence.
He was seen as ambivalent at best about winning a job held previously by his father, grandmother and great-grandfather. Immediately after his appearance, his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the party, took the microphone and said she assumes responsibility.
Modi promised a fresh start in India, noting that he is the first Indian prime minister born after independence from Britain in 1947. “I would like to reassure the nation that while we did not get to fight and die for independence, we have the honour of living for this nation,” he said.
“Now is not the time to die for the nation but to live for it.”