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Vote counting underway in India national election

NEW DELHI -- India's main Hindu nationalist party was making early gains Friday as officials began counting votes following the country's massive national election, with the opposition looking to end the ruling Congress party's decade-long reign.

The Election Commission was expected to announce the results later in the day.

There was a record turnout in this year's election, with 66.38 percent of India's 814 million eligible voters casting ballots during the six-week contest, which began April 7 and was held in stages across the country. Turnout in the 2009 elections was 58.13 percent.

Campaigning on promises of a revival in economic growth, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, were looking to take advantage of widespread dissatisfaction with the Congress party.

The BJP's slick and well-financed campaign also promised better governance. The Congress-led ruling alliance has been plagued by repeated corruption scandals, and the Congress party's 43-year-old leader, Rahul Gandhi, appeared to have failed to inspire public confidence.

Exit polls by at least six major Indian TV stations predicted a BJP-led coalition would win between 249 and 289 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament. A party or coalition needs at least 272 seats to form a government.

According to the Election Commission, early vote counting for 424 seats showed the BJP ahead in 225 seats and the Congress in 44. The rest were divided among a handful of smaller parties.

The Nehru-Gandhi family, which has ruled India for all but 10 years since the country won independence from British rule in 1947, has been facing its biggest political threat in 10 years. The Congress party attempted to position Rahul Gandhi as a young leader capable of boosting the country's struggling economy, but most Indians see him as being out of touch with reality. His privileged background has made him appear aloof and removed from the concerns of most Indians.

In comparison, Modi's campaign was seen by many as a media and marketing coup for a man whose background ties him to bloodshed in his home state of Gujarat, where communal rioting in 2002 left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. Modi is accused of doing little to stop the rampage, though he denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.

He managed to hammer away at Gandhi — specifically the perception that he is nothing more than a feudal prince from a family that views ruling the country as its birthright.

By early Friday afternoon, a clear picture was expected to emerge on what India's next Parliament will look like.

If the results are in line with the exit polls and the early trends and the BJP and its allies win a clear majority, India's stock markets are likely to see a major upswing. Already on Friday, the Sensex stock index rose as much as 4.7 percent on news of the BJP's strong showing.

At the party's headquarters in New Delhi, workers were already anticipating victory and preparing sweets to be distributed among the BJP's supporters and allies.

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Indian policemen on duty watch election results on television at a counting station in New Delhi, India, Friday, May 16.

AP

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