India’s Long Election Ends, With Modi’s Third Term In Balance

(Bloomberg) -- After more than six weeks of voting, India’s marathon general election ended Saturday, with focus now shifting to exit polls that offer the first glimpse at whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi can extend his decade in power.

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Voters in seven states braved scorching heat to cast their ballots in the seventh and final phase. Turnout in the final phase was 58.34% as of 5pm, according to the Election Commission of India.

Official results for the nationwide elections won’t be declared until June 4. The first exit polls are set to be published starting at 6:30pm India time on Saturday.

The election was an increasingly bitter contest between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and an opposition coalition that had been seen as struggling to mount a strong offensive.

Pre-election polls signaled Modi’s party securing enough seats for a comfortable majority in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, though analysts and party insiders have more recently said that the BJP’s goal of securing an overwhelming 400-seat majority with allies is looking in doubt.

While exit polls are poised to give an early look at results, such polls have a mixed track record in Indian elections. Pollsters correctly predicted the broad outlines of the result from the 2019 and 2014 general elections, but they were mostly off-base in 2004 and 2009, according to an analysis of polling data by Standard Chartered Plc.

The length of the election has fueled financial-market volatility and “led to various narratives and counter-narratives in the media,” the bank’s economists wrote in a research report.

Modi and allies have ramped up their attacks on the opposition, arguing that the Indian National Congress, the biggest opposition party, would redistribute wealth to Muslims and “infiltrators.” The Congress party said the BJP was misrepresenting its campaign pledges.

The prime minister has said he is confident of a third term, telling Indian broadcaster NDTV last week that he was sent by God “for a purpose.” He added: “Once the purpose is achieved, my work will be done. This is why I have completely dedicated myself to God.”

Modi is spending the campaign’s final days meditating on a small island off India’s southern tip. Opposition figures described the island retreat as a stunt and a violation of election rules.

“He may meditate but why in the presence of cameras?” said Mamata Banerjee, an opposition member who leads West Bengal state.

The close of voting comes as a fresh heat wave pushes temperatures to new highs in parts of the country. Temperatures in several cities crossed 50C (122F) this week, while a single observatory in New Delhi recorded a high of 52.9C on Wednesday. The high temperatures were a contributing factor in the deaths of at least 18 poll workers in two northern states, according to local media reports.

The election’s final phase covered constituencies in states including Modi’s constituency of Varanasi, the Hindu holy city where he was reelected in 2019 with a margin of nearly 500,000 votes. It’s Modi’s third time contesting from the city.

The entire northern Indian state of Punjab also headed to the polls with its 13 seats, while in the country’s east, in West Bengal, the BJP faced a fierce challenge as it seeks to wrest control from Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress.

--With assistance from Swati Gupta and Debjit Chakraborty.

(Updates with polls closing from first paragraph.)

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