Narendra Modi closed in on a landslide victory in India's election Friday, as results showed him riding a wave of support for promises of jobs and development that has drowned out his image as a religious right-winger.
Counting at the climax of the marathon six-week election showed his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on track for a landslide win and the best performance by a single party since 1989.
Preliminary results indicated it might reach a majority of 272 seats in parliament on its own and was assured of forming the next government with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance.
"This is the beginning of change, a people's revolution and the start of a new era," senior BJP leader Prakash Javadekar told AFP at party headquarters in Delhi where celebrations broke out hours after counting began.
The Congress party, the only national secular force that has run India for all but 13 years of its history, was heading for its worst ever result after a decade in power.
"Surely we can proudly sit in the opposition and play a role of a responsible opposition for the next time," party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi conceded on the NDTV network.
Stock markets, which have risen 5.0 percent in the past week, surged again. The benchmark index known as the Sensex jumped more than six percent on Friday morning to a record high.
Investors and the wider public have rediscovered heady -- many say unrealistic -- optimism about the world's largest democracy after years of frustration about low economic growth, rising food prices and corruption.
The disastrous showing for Congress is another blow to the latest scion of the Gandhi dynasty, Rahul, whose lacklustre performance as chief campaigner will likely lead to dissent.
His family has provided three prime ministers for the party, but the scale of the defeat will raise questions over whether its era of dominance is over.
A group of Congress supporters shouted slogans in support of Rahul's sister Priyanka outside party headquarters on Friday.
"The politics of inheritance, the politics of dynasty, the politics of entitlement is being punished," BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad told the CNN-IBN news channel.
After years of criticism of his aloof style, the media-shy Rahul gave further ammunition to his critics by skipping a farewell dinner this week for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India's third-longest serving premier.
- Tea seller -
Modi, a 63-year-old son of a low-caste tea seller, has reinvented himself from a controversial regional leader tainted by anti-Muslim riots to an aspiring prime minister intent on helping India fulfil its potential.
After a presidential-style campaign built around him and his record running western Gujarat state, expectations are sky-high of what Modi will deliver in a chaotic and still poor country that is home to a sixth of humanity.
Tonnes of sweets and fireworks were delivered to BJP headquarters in Delhi in anticipation of a landslide, while party workers beat drums and waved flags in Gujarat on Friday.
Modi's promises to revive the flagging economy have won him corporate cheerleaders, while his rags-to-riches story and reputation as a clean and efficient administrator satisfy many Indians' desire for strong leadership.
He was always assured the votes of his core Hindu nationalist supporters, but his election pitch has drawn the urban middle classes as well as the poor, whose loyalty has traditionally been to Congress and its welfare schemes.
Attacks from his opponents -- one called him a "devil" and the "Butcher of Gujarat" -- as well as warnings from secular-minded critics and religious minorities appear to have failed to dent his rise.
The BJP's previous best showing was in elections in 1998 and 1999 when it won 182 seats and ran the country until a shock defeat to Congress in 2004.
- Change in style -
A BJP victory and a Modi prime ministership would usher in a new style of leadership by an abrasive nationalist drawn from outside the usual Delhi elite.
"They can't believe it -- they can't believe that someone from such a simple background could beat them," Modi's sister Vasantiben Modi told AFP in an interview at her modest home in Gujarat.
While 81-year-old PM Singh was hailed by US President Barack Obama as a "wise and decent man", Modi would be an awkward prospect for Washington and other Western powers.
The bachelor, elected three times as chief minister in his home state, was boycotted by the US and European powers for a decade over religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
He denies that he turned a blind eye to the bloodshed and his focus on the campaign trail has been jobs.
But the BJP manifesto includes a pledge to build a temple to honour the Hindu god Ram at the site of a former mosque in northern India, a religious flashpoint that sparked deadly rioting in 1992.
"He has to succeed on the economy and that's the thing on which he will be judged," said Christophe Jaffrelot, an academic on India from Paris' Sciences Po university and King's College London.
"But what if he fails to relaunch the economy? The Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) plank is the plan B," he told AFP.