Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi poised for victory as India steers hard right
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi looked set to sweep to power in India on Friday, riding a wave of public support for his message of jobs and development that has drowned out his past as a religious right-winger.

Vote counting will start at 8:00 a.m. (0230 GMT) at the climax of a marathon six-week election that saw a record 551 million people file through polling booths from the Himalayas to the country's southern tip.

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 statesman intent on helping India fulfill its potential.

Survey after survey has indicated his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is heading for its best ever result in a parliamentary election after 10 years of rule by the leftist Congress party and the Gandhi political dynasty.

After a highly personalized 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.

"I've been to Gujarat and I saw good roads, good infrastructure and good hotels -- it was quite like America," said Ajit Singh, a wrestling coach who spoke to AFP on the streets of New Delhi.

"When Modi comes there will be progress," he said.

Stock markets have risen 5.0 percent in the last week as heady -- many say unrealistic -- optimism has returned to a country frustrated with its leaders over low economic growth, rising food prices and corruption.

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.

Exit polls, which failed to predict the 2004 reversal, forecast that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) should reach a majority of 272 seats -- with other allies keen to join.

A BJP victory and a Modi premiership would usher in a new style of leadership by an abrasive Hindi-speaking nationalist drawn from outside the usual Delhi power circles.

It would leave Congress, the only national secular force that has ruled India for all but 13 years of its history, in tatters and raise doubts about whether the Gandhi dynasty can provide the country a fourth prime minister.

"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 on Thursday.

Rahul, the newest generation from the Gandhi bloodline, is forecast to lead his party to its worst ever result in his first national campaign.

After years of criticism of his aloof style, the media-shy Cambridge graduate gave further ammunition to his critics by skipping a farewell dinner this week for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India's third-longest serving premier.

While 81-year-old Singh was hailed by U.S. 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 of his state, was boycotted by the US and European powers for a decade over religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 which left around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

Modi, who rose through grassroots Hindu organizations, was accused of whipping up sentiments against Muslims and then deliberately failing to control the violence, or even conniving in it.

Several investigations, including one monitored by the Supreme Court, have found no evidence of personal wrongdoing and he denies the accusations.

While his focus on the campaign trail has been jobs -- he has said his only religion is "development" -- his desire to push through his party's core Hindu nationalist agenda remains an open question.

Among others, the BJP manifesto includes a pledge to build a temple to honor the Hindu god Ram at the site of a former mosque in northern India, an infamous 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 Sciences Po university in Paris 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.

Watch this video report posted online by AFP news agency: