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India election: exit polls show big win for BJP after record turnout

Congress appears to be heading for one its worst defeats while the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies seem certain to form next government.

Women queue to vote in Varanasi on May 12, 2014, in the ninth and final phase of India's general elections. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images
Women queue to vote in Varanasi on May 12, 2014, in the ninth and final phase of India's general elections. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

NEW DELHI // The ruling Congress party faces a widespread rout, according to exit polls released yesterday after the final phase of India’s general election, while the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are expected to gain the most seats.

More than 60 million people voted in polling held in parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal states yesterday, bringing the total voter turnout in the election to 67 per cent – the highest level in any Indian national election, and a world record for the number of people voting in a single election.

The official results of the nine-stage election will be announced on Friday, when the election commission will count the votes.

In particular focus yesterday was the constituency of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was hoping his party’s Hindu nationalist ideology would tap into the ancient temple town’s voter base.

Among his rivals was Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who said last month that his express purpose in choosing Varanasi was “to defeat Modi”.

A loss in Varanasi would not rule Mr Modi out of parliament altogether as he also stood for election in the town of Vadodara, in his home state of Gujarat.

The earliest of the polls to be released after voting closed at 6pm, conducted by the polling agency Cicero and the India Today media group, predicted that the BJP and its allies would win between 261 and 283 seats, putting them in pole position to cross the halfway 272-seat mark and form the government. Cicero projected the Congress and its partners would win between 110 and 120 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. This puts the Congress in danger of eclipsing its previous worst performance: 114 seats in the 1999 election.

Exit polls announced subsequently by agencies such as Times Now and NDTV predicted roughly the same result, although Times Now forecast a lower tally – 249 – for the BJP and its allies.

The AAP trailed in the projections, their vote share barely registering in most states.

The results of the exit polls, if borne out by the election commission’s tally on Friday, will signal momentous changes in India.

“If the BJP were ever able to gain their own majority, the implementation of their Hindu nationalist agenda would be rapid, comprehensive and extensive – indelibly altering India’s social and political landscape,” said Chris Ogden, a researcher in South Asian security at Scotland’s University of St Andrews.

The BJP and its partners were predicted to “sweep” the northern states of Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh, according to an exit poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a research institute in New Delhi.

Nielsen, another agency, called 46 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh for the BJP – a powerful performance in a difficult state with fragmented loyalties.

But every exit poll showed that the BJP had made few inroads into south India.

However, television anchors announcing the results of the exit polls yesterday routinely inserted the caveat that they have been comprehensively wrong in the past.

In the 2009 election, for example, polling agencies had unanimously predicted that the BJP and its coalition partners would garner between 230 and 250 seats. The same exit polls forecast that the Congress would win between 176 and 205 seats.

When the votes were counted, however, the BJP’s coalition had notched up only 189 seats. The Congress and its allies, having won 222, were able to attract sufficient support from other parties to get past the 272-seat mark and form the government.

As this election closed, however, even Congress insiders have been pessimistic about their party’s prospects, believing gloomily that voters will punish them for years of misgovernance and corruption.

A further hint that a BJP-led coalition is headed for a majority lay in the rally of the stock market. The Bombay Stock Exchange closed at 23,559 yesterday – an all-time closing high, driven, analysts said, by investor sentiment that Mr Modi would deliver the clean, efficient governance he has promised.

“The market seems to have made up its mind that a Modi-led government will come to power,” Aneesh Srivastava, chief investment officer with IDBI Federal Life Insurance, told Bloomberg yesterday. “There’s an expectation that a change in government will improve economic fundamentals.”

However, one Congress insider speculated that the BJP and its allies might total only 240 seats, making it difficult to form a government and sending the country into parliamentary limbo.

In such a situation, if a broader coalition cannot lay claim to a majority, India might see a repeat of the election process later this year.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae