NEW DELHI - Indians cast final ballots Monday in a record election that saw 551 million people vote over five weeks, with exit polls predicting a new right-wing government under hardliner Narendra Modi on course for victory while Congress and its allies forecast to sweep to a parliamentary majority.
The final phase of voting in 41 constituencies ended at 6pm, with the first exit polls released soon afterwards pointing to a huge swing towards Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Official results are due on Friday (May 16).
BJP’s popular slogan for this election was “Aap ki baar, Modi Sarkar”.
The survey results backed forecasts before voting started on April 7 that the BJP and its allies would reach a majority in parliament after trouncing the ruling Congress party. But as the stock market hit a new record high on the hopes that Modi can jumpstart the flagging economy, analysts urged caution due to notorious forecasting failures in 2004 and 2009.
Research group C-Voter predicted 289 seats for the National Democratic Alliance headed by the BJP, with just 101 seats for the alliance led by the Congress party - which would be the ruling party’s worst-ever result.
Another poll, by Cicero for the India Today group, showed the NDA hitting between 261 and 283 seats. A majority of 272 is needed to form a government, although that is often achieved with outside support from regional parties.
Several national exit polls over-estimated the BJP’s seat share in the last two general elections in 2004 and 2009. The ruling Congress party went on to form coalition governments on both occasions.
“We will only know if this ‘Modi wave’ has really happened after the election results,” said Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), who published a report on exit polls last month. “It still might be more of a media wave, a manufactured wave.”
CSDS has put together a survey canvassing voters at least a day after they cast their ballots due to be released by the CNN-IBN news channel later on Monday.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a crucial political battleground, is particularly tricky for pollsters to forecast because it is a caste-sensitive state where some voters are afraid of speaking frankly about who they chose, said Rai.
C-Voter said its poll was based on a sample of 166,901 randomly selected respondents in all 543 seats up for election. The pollster said its margin of error is +\-3 percent at a national level.
Shortly after the polls closed for the last time, the Election Commission gave final figures for the world’s biggest election, saying 551 million had voted - 130 million more than in 2009 - with turnout also at a record high of 66.38 percent.
The number of voters shattered the previous record of 417 million set in India five years ago, Election Commission Director General Akshay Rout told reporters.
Around 814 million people had been eligible to vote in the world’s biggest election which wrapped up on Monday five weeks after the first phase of polling on April 7.
“This is the highest ever turnout in India’s national election history. These numbers may still go up marginally because of postal ballots and other factors,” director general of the Election Commission, Akshay Rout, told reporters.
The turnout rate of 66.38 percent beat the previous record of 64.01 set in 1984 and was a major jump from the last general election in 2009 when 58.19 percent of the electorate cast a ballot.
Attention earlier in the day had focused on the city of Varanasi where 63-year-old Modi was standing as a candidate and hoping for a crowning victory on the final day of voting.
In a video message, he paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands who stood out in the scorching sun for hours to give strength to democracy over the last five weeks. He also praised Varanasi for “its peace, its goodwill and its unity.”
His decision to stand in Varanasi was rich in religious symbolism and seen as reinforcing his Hindu nationalist credentials during a campaign in which he steered clear of his customary hardline rhetoric.
The four-time chief minister of the western state of Gujarat has campaigned on a pledge of clean government and development to revive the flagging economy after 10 years of left-leaning rule by the Congress party. But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed swiftly to curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, which left at least 1,000 people dead shortly after he came to power there.
Modi denies the accusations and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him. “I have voted for the about-to-be PM of India, Narendra Modi,” 35-year-old Setupati Tripathi told AFP after casting his ballot in the city where Hindus are cremated on the banks of the holy River Ganges.
“With him winning the Varanasi seat, I am also confident about the development of this millennia-old city as a tourist destination,” he added as bearded holy men dressed in saffron robes queued elsewhere to cast their votes.
Anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal from the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party was also contesting and hoping to upset Modi who has spent little time in the city as he campaigned across the country.
Varanasi, around 420 miles (680 kilometres) east of Delhi, has a large Muslim population which would be expected to vote against Modi.
“The way things have been shaping up in the last three days, everybody is saying Modi is losing,” Kejriwal, who has focused on a grassroots campaign, told reporters.
Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years.
Despite a decade of economic growth that has averaged 7.6 percent per year, a sharp slowdown since 2012 has badly hurt the party run by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has dominated post-independence politics in India.
The latest member of the famous bloodline, Rahul Gandhi, who is leading his first national campaign, has denied that the party is staring at almost certain defeat.
Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who rose through the BJP ranks, has derided his opponent as a reluctant “shehzada” (prince) and Gandhi’s lacklustre campaign has latterly been overshadowed by his sister Priyanka’s electioneering.
The Gandhi siblings, joined by their mother and party president Sonia, have hit back, accusing Modi of being dangerously divisive and prejudiced against the country’s 150 million Muslims.
Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed stressed that opinion polls had failed to predict a victory for his party and its allies in 2004, when they ousted a BJP-led coalition, and in 2009.
“We anticipate that we will be able to attain a majority with our alliance partners, but all calls will be taken by (the) party after final results are announced,” he told a press conference in New Delhi.
Modi electrified the lengthy contest with a media-savvy campaign that hinged on vows to kickstart India’s economy and create jobs. Yet much depends on Modi’s winning enough seats to form a stable government that will allow him to push through his promised reforms.
India’s stock markets have in recent days hit record highs on hopes that the exit polls would show the BJP and its allies winning a majority.
The Nifty breached the psychologically key level of 7,000 points for the first time on Monday, breaking a record high of 6,871.35 that it hit on Friday.
The benchmark BSE Sensex also hit an all-time high and rupee rallied to its strongest levels in 10 months on Monday.
Should Modi fall short of a majority when the results come in on May 16, he will need to strike a coalition deal with some of India’s increasingly powerful regional parties.
Indian elections are notoriously hard to call, however, due to the country’s diverse electorate and a parliamentary system in which local candidates hold great sway. Pre-election opinion polls and post-voting exit polls both have a patchy record.