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 Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.
The final phase of voting in 41 constituencies ended at 6:00 pm, with the first exit polls released soon afterwards pointing to a huge swing towards Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The surveys backed forecasts before voting started on April 7 that the BJP - and its allies - should be able to reach a majority in parliament after a resounding rejection of the ruling leftist Congress party and the Gandhi political dynasty.
“The politics of arrogance, dynasty and inheritance is being rejected by the people of India,” BJP spokesman and parliamentarian Ravi Shankar Prasad told a press conference.
“The politics of initiative, hard work and accomplishment is being rewarded.”
But as the stock market hit a new record high on hopes that Modi can jumpstart the flagging economy, analysts urged caution due to notorious forecasting failures in 2004 and 2009.
The first full survey from CVoter showed the BJP and its allies reaching a majority of 289, while others released by the CNN-IBN and Headlines Today channels showed the party making huge gains across large swathes of the country.
Even if Modi and his allies fall short of a majority of 272 seats, the projected results would represent a spectacular rise on the BJP’s showing in the last election in 2009 when it won 116 seats against 206 for Congress.
Shortly after 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.
High turnout often augurs well for the opposition and is usually a signal that voters are keen for a change.
“These numbers may still go up marginally because of postal ballots and other factors,” director general of the Election Commission, Akshay Rout, told reporters.
Official results are due on Friday. Attention earlier in the day had focused on the sacred 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 our democracy’ over the last five weeks.
Writing later on his blog, he struck a conciliatory tone, saying that ‘it is natural for the spirit of bi-partisanship to get temporarily lost in the midst of an election campaign but now is the time to regain it’.
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 platform of clean government and development to revive the economy after 10 years of left-leaning rule by the Congress party.
But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed to curb swiftly deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which left at least 1,000 people dead shortly after he came to power there.
Europe and the United States boycotted him for a decade over the violence.
“With him winning the Varanasi seat, I am also confident about the development of this millennia-old city as a tourist destination,” voter Setupati Tripathi told AFP after casting his ballot in Varanasi on Monday.
Anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal from the new Aam Aadmi Party also competed from the city on the holy river Ganges and was hoping for an upset.
Exit surveys showed support evaporating for his party nation-wide, however, which became a sensation in December when it swept to power after state elections in New Delhi.
“The way things have been shaping up in the last three days, everybody is saying Modi is losing,” Kejriwal told reporters on Monday.
Voters are thought to have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years.
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