A year after its 49-day stint in power ended abruptly, Arvind Kejriwal's AAP was set to return to power in Delhi, exit polls said Saturday after record voting in assembly elections whose outcome is bound to have national ramifications.
Half-a-dozen exit polls said the AAP, born in 2012 on the strength of an anti-corruption movement, was likely to get between 31 and a staggering 53 seats in the 70-member assembly, relegating the BJP to the second spot and virtually wiping out the Congress, India's oldest political party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party could bag 17-35 seats. The Congress, which ruled Delhi for 15 years until December 2013, would be routed, winning no seat or at best four seats, the exit polls predicted.
A defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP in Delhi would harm his chances of consolidating power in Parliament, where his reform agenda is being thwarted. Modi needs to win most of the state elections over the next four years to gain control of both Houses of Parliament to deliver on his promise of jobs and economic growth.
A happy Kejriwal, who ran an aggressive campaign over the months drawing huge crowds, expressed gratitude to the people of Delhi for voting for the Aam Aadmi Party in large numbers.
"(You are) so amazing," he tweeted. "(You) rejected politics of caste and religion. Hope final results (are) as per exit polls."
Putting up a brave face, BJP's chief ministerial candidate Kiran Bedi disputed the exit poll findings and said she was confident her party would win. "Wait till Feb 10," she said, referring to the day the votes will be counted.
Senior AAP leader Yogendra Yadav said his party was headed for a landslide and could get more than 50 seats.
There was no comment from BJP president Amit Shah, who along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi had picked Bedi, India's first woman Indian Police Service officer and a former Kejriwal colleague, to head the BJP charge in Delhi, shocking the party's established leadership in the capital.
A record 67% of Delhi's 1.33 crore electorate voted on Saturday, with maximum polling recorded in low-income areas all over the city where the AAP enjoyed maximum appeal.
Today's Chanakya gave 48 seats to the AAP and 22 to the BJP. The BJP tally, if correct, would be less than the 28 the AAP had got in its maiden election 14 months ago. It said the Congress would be crushed.
A party will need at least 36 seats to form the government in Delhi.
The ABP-Nielsen survey gave the Aam Aadmi Party 43 seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party 26 seats. Any party will need at least 36 seats to form a government in Delhi.
The Times Now-C-Voter survey said the AAP was poised to win 35-43 seats and the BJP 25-33.
The India Today-Cicero put the AAP tally at 38-46 seats and of the BJP at 19-27.
The NDTV survey said the AAP could win 38 seats and the BJP 29.
The Axis-APM poll, however, credited 53 seats to the AAP and 17 to the BJP.
All exit polls put the Congress at a distant third, giving the party zero to a maximum of five seats.
Although the Delhi election was a battle for the city state, it became high profile after Prime Minister Modi addressed rallies asking people to reject the AAP and its leader Kejriwal whom he called a Maoist.
Huge billboards all across the capital as well as the BJP's advertisement blitz urged voters to support Modi.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah was the first among senior politicians to mock at Modi after the exit polls.
"If your slogan is 'Chalo chalen Modi ke saath' (Let us go with Modi) as we heard ad nauseam on the radio, you can't claim the result isn't about HIM," Abdullah tweeted.
Earlier, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and also the Communist parties urged people to vote for the AAP.
Former Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal-United leader Nitish Kumar also came out in favour of the AAP.
While balloting was initially slow Saturday in middle and upper middle class areas, thousands began thronging polling centres right from the time the exercise began at 8 am
When Kejriwal went to his polling centre, he was virtually mobbed by voters. Midway through the balloting that ended at 6pm, the AAP and the BJP claimed they were poised to win.
Although the Congress was also in the race, it was squeezed out in the BJP-AAP battle.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi was mellowed when asked about her party's prospects. "Jo janta chahegi wahi hoga (What people want will happen)", she said after casting her vote.
The voting followed a bitter campaign that was marked by the BJP and AAP trading accusations on a variety of issues, ranging from funding from dubious firms to Kejriwal's party to an advertisement issued by the BJP that caricatured Kejriwal and contained a reference to his caste that the AAP deemed derogatory.
The BJP, which has been out of power in the national capital for 16 years, initially banked on the "Modi wave" to carry it to power in the Delhi assembly but later roped in former IPS officer Kiran Bedi and named her as its chief ministerial candidate.
The AAP, which had been under a cloud after Kejriwal quit as chief minister in February last year when he failed to push through an anti-corruption law, surged back into the reckoning by appealing to youngsters and the middle class.
Observers have described the Delhi assembly polls as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but this has been rejected by the BJP.
The campaign by the Congress, which ruled for 15 years in Delhi before losing to the AAP in polls in 2013, was lacklustre and the party was banking on its traditional vote banks to maintain some sort of political presence in the city.
The political temperature shot up on the polling day after Kejriwal alleged a certain party distributed liquor and cash a day ahead of polling. Minutes later, he tweeted: "BJP candidate from Mangolpuri arrested for carrying liquor bottles in his car? Shudn't his candidature be cancelled? (sic)".
Kejriwal also sought the election commission's intervention over polling being "slowed down" in many places, which he said had resulted in voters returning without casting their vote.
"As per rules, 3 voters r allowed inside booth at a time. They r allowing only 1 voter, which has slowed down voting... Even lunch breaks being taken which is against rules. EC shud (sic) immediately intervene," he tweeted.
Allegations flew thick and fast from the BJP camp as well. Bedi, alleged AAP workers in Krishna Nagar - a BJP bastion and her constituency - were forcing people not to vote for the BJP.
"Media is reporting selectively… if the media is fair they must report this incident."