By Siddhartha Kumar (DPA)
NEW DELHI — India's five-week long parliamentary election came to a close Monday, with exit polls tipping the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be in a position to form the next government.
The parliamentary polls, the world's biggest with an electorate of 815 million, began on April 7 and were held over 10 phases. Results are due on Friday.
With 541 million eligible Indians having cast their ballots, turnout was estimated at a record 66.4 per cent. The country's previous best turnout, during the 1984 elections, was 63.6 per cent.
"The high turnout is chiefly due to enthusiasm among people, most of whom are expecting to change their government," said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Exit polls suggested that the Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the country's most famous political dynasty, was likely to be dislodged by a resurgent BJP after 10 years in power.
According to broadcaster Times Now, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is led by the BJP, has secured between 249 and 265 seats in the country's 543-strong parliament.
The polls found that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance would secure 148 seats, while smaller parties would get a combined total of 146 seats.
Another broadcaster, NDTV, which averaged polls broadcast on three news channels, said the NDA was set to gain around 280 seats.
Political analysts, however, have warned that India's exit polls have a reputation for being misleading and have gone wrong in the past.
Depending on the final results of the election, smaller regional parties could play a crucial role in enabling the NDA to form the next government.
Millions braved soaring summer temperatures to elect 41 more lawmakers to the 543-member parliament in Monday's final stage.
The spotlight of Monday's electoral round was between Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate from the BJP, and Arvind Kejriwal of the fledgling anti-corruption Aam Aadmi party in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.
Congress has faced public anger due to widespread corruption, high inflation and a sharp economic slowdown.
Modi, a pro-business reformer who has promised development and jobs to revive the economy, is a popular but divisive leader. His tenure as chief minister in the western state of Gujarat saw some of India's bloodiest Hindu-Muslim riots.
There were no major disruptions during this year's elections. But Maoist insurgents, who had called for a boycott of the polls, carried out a series of attacks, killing dozens of police officers and polling officials.
Indian markets have been hitting record highs since Friday on the back of expectations that the BJP will form the next government and bring measures to revive the economy.
The 30-share Sensex of the Bombay Stock Exchange surged over 1,000 points, or over 5 per cent, since Friday to touch an all-time high of 23,551 points.