Modi's party has early lead as Indian votes are counted

Election officials begin counting votes of India's massive general elections, in New Delhi, India, Thursday, May 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party were off to an early lead as vote counting began Thursday following the conclusion of the country's six-week general election, sending the stock market soaring in anticipation of another five-year term for the Hindu nationalist leader.

Election Commission data at midmorning showed the Bharatiya Janata Party leading in contests for 294 out of 542 seats, with its main rival, the Indian National Congress, ahead in 50 contests. The data didn't indicate what percentage of the estimated 600 million votes had been counted.

The count was expected to conclude by Thursday evening.

The election has been seen as a referendum on Modi, whose economic reforms have had mixed results but whose popularity as a social underdog in India's highly stratified society has endured. Critics have said his Hindu-first platform risks exacerbating social tensions in the country of 1.3 billion people.

On the campaign trail, Modi presented himself as a self-made man with the confidence to cut red tape and unleash India's economic potential, and labeled Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a political dynasty that lost power in 2014, as an out-of-touch elite.

Half a dozen exit polls released after voting concluded Sunday showed Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party winning. A party or coalition needs a simple majority, or 272 of the seats in Parliament's lower house, to govern.

"Mr. Modi's going to be the next prime minister, we are very assured of that," said Meenakshi Lekhi, a member of Parliament running for re-election in New Delhi.

By midmorning, India's Sensex had jumped 2.3% to an all-time high over 40,000.

Crowds gathered in New Delhi to watch the results come on big LED screens at Connaught Place.

Mohammad Shamshad, a 21-year-old mechanical engineer standing among about two dozen men watching live results, said it was too early to call.

"It's like a cricket match — anyone can win," he said.

In the world's largest democratic exercise, voters cast ballots on some 40 million electronic voting machines, a method India began using 15 years ago after complaints that the manual count of paper ballots was tainted by fraud and abuse.

Losing candidates and political parties have raised doubts about the accuracy and reliability of the electronic method, however, noting the machines are not used in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

The issue hit the headlines again this week.

Top opposition leaders met with Election Commission officials on Tuesday after videos appeared on social media showing some electronic voting machines being moved. The party officials alleged that the machines were being moved in order to be altered, but the commission said the images showed unused machines being moved into storage.