India’s long, hot and increasingly bad-tempered election campaign began its final day of voting today with the two main candidates still claiming each had done enough to win. Their claims may be tested later today when the first exit polls are published.
Around 66 million people are registered to vote in 41 constituencies across three large states on the ninth and final day of voting. Up until this point, turn-out has been at more than 66 per cent - an all-time high.
Among the contests being decided today is the constituency of Varanasi, an ancient city on the Ganges river that is sacred to Hindus and one of two seats from where presumed front-runner Narendra Modi is competing. He is being directly challenged in Varanasi by 41 other candidates, perhaps most forcefully by Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of a new, grass-roots party that has campaigned against corruption.
Mr Modi, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is generally reckoned to have seized the momentum during the many months of campaigning across India. During his campaign, he repeatedly has pushed the message of development and jobs, even while some of his BJP colleagues continued to stir communal tension.
By contrast, the ruling Congress party, whose rather lacklustre campaign was headed by Rahul Gandhi, is expected to do badly. After ten years in power, the most recent of them seen as drifting an ineffectual, the party appears to be facing a widespread sentiment of anti-incumbency
The result of election is due to be announced on Friday. Indian elections are notoriously difficult to predict and in 2004 in particular, most pundits called the outcome incorrectly.
Yet exit polls that can be tonight be published after polling ends could give some indication as to whether or not there is evidence of the “Modi wave” that he and his supporters claim has gripped India.
In a video message posted on social media on Monday, Mr Modi, 63, said: “Today is the last day of elections, the 9th phase. Despite the harsh heat, the people of the country are fighting to ensure that democracy wins. Women and youth have voted enthusiastically.”
Observers say the election was particularly hard fought. Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi often trader personal barbs. The BJP leader contrasted Mr Modi’s privileged upbringing as part of the Nehru-Gandhi family, with his own relatively impoverished background in small-town Gujarat.
Meanwhile. Mr Gandhi claimed Mr Modi, long tarnished over the massacre of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat while he was chief minister, will destroy the secular foundation of India.
Over the weekend, the Congress and the BJP traded final attacks ahead of the last day of polling. At a rally in Varanasi, Mr Gandhi claimed Mr Modi’s speeches were full of anger. He added: “But India works on love and not on anger India is for everybody. It is for Hindus, Muslims, Sikh and Christians. It belongs to every caste and community, poor and rich people and it will remain for everybody.”
The BJP complained that Mr Modi had been prevented by election officials from holding a major rally in the city ahead of polling. “Why was the Rahul roadshow permitted when Modi was denied permission in the same area,” said senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley.