India’s marathon polls come to an end today

Curtain will fall on India’s mammoth and long-drawn parliamentary elections with the seventh and final phase of voting today. In the election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking a second consecutive term in power, is pitted in an unexpectedly tight contest. An estimated 10.2 crore voters are eligible to exercise franchise in the final phase of polling in 59 constituencies spread across seven states Uttar Pradesh (13 seats), West Bengal (9 seats), Punjab (13), Bihar (8), Madhya Pradesh (8), Jharkhand (3), Himachal Pradesh, and (4) one federally-administered territory of Chandigarh to elect their representatives from among 918 candidates including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking re-election from Varanasi.

The counting of votes will be taken up on May 23 but TV channels would come out with results of exit polls soon after polling in the last phases closes at 6pm Indian time on Sunday. Ahead of Sunday’s polling, Modi on Saturday offered prayers at two key Hindu shrines Kedarnath and Badrinath in the Himalayas. Modi is expected to win hands down in Varanasi against his rivals Shalini Yadav of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance and Congress nominee Ajai Rai who had finished a distant third in the previous national poll five years ago.

 Modi had won by a margin of 370,000 votes against Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal in 2014. while Modi may win easily in the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, where polling will take place in 13 of the total of 80 constituencies on Sunday, Modi’s BJP is facing a very tough challenge from SP-BSP combine which, in the absence of a perceptible wave, is banking on caste equations and consolidation of votes of backward Yadav caste, Dalit caste Jatav and Muslims behind them.

The BJP had made a clean sweep in UP in 2014 winning 72 of the 80 seats but this year its tally is likely to be halved, say most poll analysts. The BSP-SP alliance has selected candidates for this year’s poll mainly on the basis of social equations, with an eye on the dominant caste factor in the region. Ghazipur is another constituency in UP where BJP’s sitting lawmaker and federal minister Manoj Sinha is seeking a re-election on the basis of development works initiated by him during his term. But his main opponent, Afzal Ansari, fielded by the opposition alliance, is counting on the combined strength of the traditional supporters of SP and BSP.

In Gorakhpur, another important constituency in UP known as Chief Minister Adityanath’s stronghold, BJP has fielded Bhojpuri film actor Ravi Kishan while the opposition alliance nominee is Ram Bhual Nishad. The BJP lost this seat in a by-poll last year. The BJP has mounted efforts in a big way in West Bengal, where voting will be held in nine seats on Sunday, to partially make up for the losses it may suffer in UP and other Hindi-speaking heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The main focus of the last phase of polling will undoubtedly be West Bengal where sporadic violence marred the previous six phases and there are apprehensions of more violence on Sunday. In an unprecedented action, India’s Election Commission curtailed the electioneering time for the final phase in the state by 20 hours following pitched street fighting between supporters of West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress and BJP during a road show by BJP chief Amit Shah on Tuesday. A bust of Bengal Renaissance icon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was also vandalized during the violence. The EC’s action had come under sharp criticism from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the entire opposition.

The breaking of Vidyasagar’s bust has become an emotive issue in the state as the 19th century educationist and social reformer had started widow remarriage and women's education, opened schools and colleges and started the use of the Bangla language as a vehicle for literature. The political battle over the violence and vandalism during BJP chief Amit Shah's road show has sharpened to a Bangalis versus “outsiders” conflict. Mamata Banerjee's 

Trinamool Congress claims the BJP had brought in goons from outside the state who know nothing of Bengal's history and culture, which led to the vandalism of the bust of Vidyasagar at the college named after him. Shah claimed it was Trinamool workers who broke the bust. The nine constituencies in West Bengal where polling is due on Sunday are Kolkata South, Kolkata North, Dum Dum, Basirhat, Barasat, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Jaynagar (SC) and Mathurapur (SC) where an estimated 1.5 crore voters are eligible to decide the fate of 111 candidates. Two constituencies would be keenly watched--south Kolkata where Mamata had contested in the past and Diamond Harbour where her nephew Abhishek Banerjee is in the fray.

The BJP had won Dum Dum constituency in parliamentary polls in 1998 and 1999 and this year the party has fielded Shamik Bhattacharya against Trinamool’s veteran sitting lawmaker Sougata Roy. In Jadavpur and Basirhat, Trinamool has fielded two young actors of Tollywood Mimi Chakrabarty and Nusrat Jahan respectively.On Sunday, polling will also be held in all the 13 constituencies of Punjab where ruling Congress party is banking on farmers loan waiver scheme as it faces challenge from Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an ally of BJP which is a minor player in the predominantly agrarian state. 

While SAD accuses Congress of cheating the farmers, Congress feels the farm loan waiver has given it a big advantage. The Congress came to power in Punjab defeating SAD-BJP alliance in the state assembly polls and anti-incumbency is yet to fully set in against the former. Modi tried to change the campaign narrative in Punjab when he, in his poll meetings, raised the issue of 1984 anti-Sikh riots soon after the killing of Indira Gandhi to corner the Congress.