NEW DELHI – Opposition parties have gathered outside Indian Election Commission centers around the country to guard ballot machines ahead of vote counting scheduled for Thursday, after which the results of the 2019 general election will be declared.
In several Indian states, opposition leaders and their followers have kept watch overnight at the entrances to the EC centers and have denounced “suspicious movements” since the last phase of the month-long elections concluded on Sunday.
Exit polls indicate the re-election of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Exit polls in the past have failed in their forecasts and the opposition has rejected the numbers, while many experts consider only two scenarios: one where the ruling BJP achieves a majority 272 seats out of a total of 543, and another where it needs its allies to form the government.
Before the exit poll results were published at the end of the last phase on Sunday, everything pointed towards the minority parties being key, with neither the BJP nor the main opposition Indian National Congress party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty looking to win enough support to govern alone.
It was believed that the demonetization of 2016 and rising unemployment would cost Modi, while the Indian National Congress would recover from the defeat in the 2014 elections thanks to the reinforced leadership of Rahul Gandhi, but not enough to return to its earlier glory.
In this context, the possibility of a “third front” coalition of regional parties was also considered to be emerging in a diverse country with 29 states where the presence of national parties is negligible.
In India, the parties tend to change side depending on the circumstances, and while some align themselves in pre-election pacts, others seek a place at national level, waiting for someone to fall short of a majority at the last minute.
In recent months, the BJP lost due to disagreements with its main ally, the Telugu Desam Party of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, and its unlikely coalition partner in Indian Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party.
However, it has achieved important agreements with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of Tamil Nadu in the south, where the BJP is virtually non-existent, and the Shiv Sena, a traditional ally in the western state of Maharashtra, with whom it has had several recent fallouts.
For the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies analyst, Praveen Rai, the state of Uttar Pradesh – the most populated with more than 200 million people and just 80 seats – is one of the major challenges for Modi’s BJP.
The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, the two main regional forces, have formed a large coalition in the state with Rashtriya Lok Dal, which neither the Indian National Congress nor the BJP have formed any ties with.
According to Rai, West Bengal is also a problem for the BJP, which is in opposition to the All India Trinamool Congress of the State Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose followers have been involved in numerous confrontations with BJP supporters.
The analyst believes that southern India remains off the board because Modi does not aspire to win more than 15 seats and said that Odisha could be another big challenge for the prime minister, unless his luck changes due to corruption allegations against the ruling Biju Janata Dal.
“The main challenges for the BJP lie in the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha ... However, a surprise may help the saffron establishment to win 60-plus seats in Uttar Pradesh, 20-odd seats in West Bengal and around 15 seats in Odisha,” Rai added.
While last-minute surprises are not rare in India, a coalition government led by the Indian National Congress and the possibility of a “third front” have lost steam in the last few days in favor of a new leader from the BJP.
“The exit polls are divided in their predictions as a few suggest that the BJP alliance (will) cross the finishing line with a tally between 280-300 seats. The BJP will fall short of the majority mark (272 out of 543 seats) and will have to rely on its allies (around 40 seats) in forming the government,” Rai said.
Another possibility reflected in two surveys indicate the party and its allies winning more than 350 seats, with more than 300 of them being exclusively from Modi’s BJP, the analyst said.
Meanwhile, members of the opposition are diligently keeping an eye on the EC centers that have ballot machines, nervous about possible manipulation that could affect their political future.