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Exit polls show Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party losing New Delhi election

Indian prime minister's BJP has not controlled the capital's legislature for 22 years

Voters queue at a polling booth for the New Delhi assembly election in the Indian capital on February 8, 2020. Reuters
Voters queue at a polling booth for the New Delhi assembly election in the Indian capital on February 8, 2020. Reuters

Exit polls suggested another heavy defeat for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party in the elections for the Delhi assembly on Saturday.

An average of nine exit polls showed the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, led by former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal, was likely to win 52 out of 70 seats.

Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been seeking to oust Mr Kejriwal, the capital territory's chief minister, since his party won the 2015 election with a record 67 seats.

While Mr Kejriwal focused on local issues including the heavily subsidised electricity, water and health care his government has introduced, BJP leaders sought to turn the vote into a referendum on nearly two months of protests across India against a new citizenship law that excludes Muslims.

The law fast-tracks naturalisation for non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who are living in the country illegally. The BJP also hoped to garner Hindu votes for ending the semi-autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir last summer and turning the disputed region into two federally governed territories amid a security lockdown.

Both of those actions have won Mr Modi praise from supporters but little reward at the polls – the BJP lost two important state elections last year.

In an often vitriolic election campaign, Mr Modi and other BJP leaders attacked opponents of the law who deem it anti-Muslim, particularly a protest by hundreds of women have been blocking a main road through Delhi's Shaheen Bagh district since December 15.

On the eve of the elections, the BJP sent out messages telling people to vote for the party if they wanted an end to the Shaheen Bagh demonstration.

With the BJP on the back foot after failing in recent state elections in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, analysts said the Delhi result would be a key test of opinion on national issues.

Federal Home Minister Amit Shah, who had campaigned vigorously for BJP highlighting his tough stance on national security, called a meeting of party members on Saturday night.

Earlier in the day long lines formed outside polling stations as Delhi's 14 million registered voters waited to cast their ballots. The final turnout was about 55 per cent, officials said, with the results to be announced on Tuesday.

Near the women's protest site, food company senior executive Maroof Ahmad said the "BJP has only two agendas – Shaheen Bagh and Pakistan".

They have nothing else to talk about," he said. "GDP is falling, the economy is in a mess and they are only bothered about temples and mosques."

“They [BJP] must be given a jolt. We are poor, but we are also humans. They only talk about divisions,” said Shabnam Mukhtar, a housewife at Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighborhood.

During the campaigning, BJP members called for violence against minority Muslims by invoking the spectre of India's arch enemy Pakistan. Critics have called the incendiary religious appeals a tactic by the BJP to divert attention from the sluggish economy, which expanded at a 4.5 per cent annual pace in the last quarter, its slowest rate since mid-2018.

Ehtashamul Haque, a businessman, said the Aam Aadmi Party “only has development on their mind” in comparison to the BJP. “People should vote for development,” he said.

But others lined up behind the prime minister.

In the affluent Jangpura neighbourhood, flower garlands and balloons decorated the polling station as financial consultant Vinod Kumar came to vote.

"I am not biased towards any political party but I don't endorse the Shaheen Bagh protest. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru believed in and supported the citizenship law," he said referring to Indian independence leaders.

Surveys by TV news channels had predicted a clear victory for the Aam Aadmi Party in the 70-member state assembly. The Congress, a distant third party, ran a lacklustre campaign and was expected to fare poorly.

The BJP was voted out of power in Delhi in 1998 by the Congress party, which had run the national government for 15 years. Despite winning the national elections in 2014, the party could not prevent the Aam Aadmi winning in Delhi a year later.

Updated: February 8, 2020 10:51 PM

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