NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to build a 'strong and inclusive' country as the charismatic but polarizing leader swept back to power in the world's largest democracy with an even bigger mandate than he won five years ago.
'Thank you India,' the prime minister tweeted. 'The faith placed in our alliance is humbling and gives us strength to work even harder to fulfill people's aspirations.'
His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is on course to win about 300 seats, according to vote counting.
That puts the BJP well past the halfway mark in parliament and would make it the first political party in 35 years to secure a majority twice in a row. Along with its coalition partners, it will have a commanding majority in parliament, which has 543 elected seats.
At a meeting of party workers to celebrate the BJP victory, Modi received a hero's welcome. He flashed victory signs and said his mandate was to build a 'new India' and a vote for the country's future.
The results are being seen as a massive vote of confidence in the leadership of Modi, who turned a parliamentary election into a presidential-style contest and defied expectations that rising unemployment and rural distress would erode his support.
Modi campaigned on a platform of strident nationalism after a brief military showdown with Pakistan in February. 'He was the central issue of the 2019 election and people wanted to give him another term. Essentially people voted for the prime minister and Narendra Modi,' according to independent political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.
The head of the main opposition Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, conceded the election and congratulated Modi. 'Our battle for a different ideological vision of India from the BJP would continue,' he said at a brief press appearance. 'Today I don't want to color the decision of the people of India and I fully respect it.'
While supporters laud Modi's strong leadership and his vision of a more assertive India, his detractors worry that the Hindu nationalist leader has fanned social divisions in the Hindu majority country as Muslims face an increase in hate crimes blamed on fringe Hindu groups.
For electrician Raghubir Gaur in New Delhi, Modi's muscular leadership, his tough stand toward Pakistan and a slew of pro-poor programs made him the undisputed choice. 'His vision is to take everybody ahead, whether it is a rickshaw puller, or a street vendor, he wants to create a more equal society.'
A former professor at Delhi University, Nandini Guha, worries that 'secularism appears to have taken a back seat' during the five-year rule of Modi, whose critics accuse him of divisive politics on the basis of religion. 'The divisive factor is possibly the most worrying right now if we want our country to remain as united as it has been all these years.'
Stock markets jumped in anticipation of a strong government, which has promised to focus on growing the economy.
As the scale of the BJP sweep became apparent, tweets by senior party leaders called it a 'victory for India.' Celebrations erupted outside party offices in the country as workers danced, waved flags, beat drums, set off fireworks and gave away candy.
The results show a remarkable turnaround from earlier this year, when losses in local polls in three Hindi heartland bastions raised concerns that perceptions the Modi government failed to deliver on its development promises would pose a challenge in the general elections.
But, it has shrugged aside those concerns and in the national polls the party held its grip on states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It also beat back a powerful challenge from two regional parties in the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh and made inroads in states in eastern India.
Political analysts said the failure of strong leadership from opposition parties also helped the re-emergence of Modi.
The results were a bitter disappointment for the once-dominant Congress Party, which had hoped for its political revival after it was reduced to a mere 44 seats in 2014.
The party has not fared much better this time around - it was securing victories in only 50-plus seats. That will reopen questions about the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty to lead the party. Gandhi also suffered a humiliating setback as he trailed a BJP minister in the Amethi parliamentary constituency, a bastion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which he has represented since 2004.
'Essentially the Congress Party is no match for the Modi-led BJP today, whether it is in terms of the leadership, whether it is in terms of the organization, or strategy,' said analyst Chowdhury. 'They have to contend with a different element in politics today.'
The 68-year-old Modi, who entered politics through a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, emerged on the national stage five years ago after leading his home state of Gujarat for 13 years.
The mammoth election recorded the highest-ever voter turnout of more than 67 percent.