By Shakir Husain
NEW DELHI, May 23 (Bernama) -- India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Thursday looked set for a strong mandate to rule the country for another five years.
Latest vote counting trends from the Election Commission showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party and its allies were ahead in 350 constituencies out of the 542 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) seats contested.
The BJP led in almost 300 seats, while the main opposition Congress was on top in 53 constituencies.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was winning in about 90 places, unable to challenge the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in politically crucial Hindi-speaking states, known as the Cow Belt, and the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
BJP leader and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj gave credit to Modi "for securing such a big victory" for the party.
The BJP ran an effective election campaign on the plank of national security and benefited from heightened military tensions with Pakistan.
The BJP's Hindu nationalist rhetoric blunted opposition attempts to corner the ruling party on issues such as youth unemployment, farmer distress, alleged corruption in the Rafale military aircraft deal and dissatisfaction over the economy.
"It looks like nationalism worked for them (the BJP) in northern states and Karnataka (in south India)," Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary Suravaram Sudhakar Reddy told local media.
A party needs 272 seats for a majority in the Lok Sabha, which has a total strength of 545 members, including two representatives nominated from the Anglo-Indian community.
Winning the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) is key to any party's aspirations to rule the nation of 1.3 billion people.
The BJP was ahead in 56 seats in U.P., the most populous state with 80 parliamentary seats.
The alliance of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party led in 19 seats.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi, contesting the Amethi constituency, was trailing the BJP candidate and federal minister Smriti Irani, while his mother Sonia Gandhi had a lead in the party's traditional stronghold of Rae Bareli.
Rahul, however, topped the vote count table in the Wayanad constituency in the southern state of Kerala, where the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) appeared to capture 19 out of the 20 seats.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) led in three of Kerala's parliamentary seats.
About 600 million of the 900 million eligible voters participated in the mammoth election exercise between April 11 and May 19, which was marred by opposition allegations of voting machine manipulations and violations of campaign rules.
Regional parties put up an impressive show in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
The Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress party (YSR Congress) led by Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy was ahead in all 25 seats in Andhra Pradesh in a major blow to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) of Nara Chandrababu Naidu.
In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was leading in 21 seats out the state's total 39.
The BJP made gains in the eastern state of Odisha, leading in seven places against 14 for the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
The BJP candidates were ahead of their rivals on all seven seats in the national capital Delhi.
In West Bengal, the BJP may win 17 seats in a tough contest with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which was ahead in 24 places.
In Gujarat, the BJP was ahead in all 26 seats.