India’s marathon elections draw to a close

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Indian polling officials check election materials before leaving for their respective polling booths at Tezpur in India's northeastern state of Assam on April 10, 2019. India's general elections will begin on April 11. Xinhua/stringer

VARANASI, India (AFP) – Voting in one of India’s most acrimonious elections in decades entered its final day Sunday as Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrambled to hang on to his overall majority.

Polls close at 6:00 pm (1230 GMT) in the seventh and final round of voting, ending the world’s biggest election with 900 million eligible voters from Goa’s beaches to Mumbai’s slums and Ladakh’s Himalayan monasteries.

Long queues formed outside polling stations in eight northern states electing the final 59 candidates to India’s 543-seat lower house.

Heavy security was imposed in West Bengal state, which has seen street battles between followers of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party and opposition groups.

Modi’s constituency in Varanasi, the holy city in Uttar Pradesh state, was also among those to vote.

The conservative BJP has campaigned aggressively on Modi’s strongman image and played up recent cross-border air strikes against Pakistan. But the opposition, led by the Congress party and its leader Rahul Gandhi, have accused him of pursuing divisive policies and neglecting the economy.

Modi and Gandhi have hurled insults at each other on a near daily basis with the prime minister calling his rival a “fool” while Gandhi derides Modi as a “thief”.

The animosity has taken a toll on voters.

“All the abuse and misconduct claims suggest that standards in Indian politics have slipped badly,” Asit Banerjee, a history teacher in Kolkata, said as he queued to vote.

“Endless mudslinging and bitter comments pervaded the campaign. We are losing hope in a democracy it is time for a reset,” the 60-year-old told AFP.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, political commentator Karan Thapar said that Modi’s message “played on our insecurities and strummed upon our deep inner fears”. He also criticised Gandhi’s campaign.

Pollsters say Modi remains personally popular but his party’s overall majority is at risk from a backlash against the government.

The 68-year-old Modi has held 142 rallies across India during the campaign, sometimes five per day, but pollsters say the BJP could lose dozens of the 282 seats it won in its 2014 landslide triumph.

All votes from the seven rounds will be counted on Thursday with the main trends to be announced the same day.

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