NEW DELHI — India opposition leader Narendra Modi called for unity in India on Monday as exit polls signaled that his opposition bloc would win a majority in the national elections, boosting his chances of taking power after pledging to revive Asia’s third-largest economy.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are expected to win 249 to 340 seats, according to six exit polls released Monday, with 272 needed for a majority. The Congress party and its allies, in power for the past decade, are projected to win 70 to 148 seats. Results will be announced Friday.
“Let’s place people over politics, hope over despair, healing over hurting, inclusion over exclusion and development over divisiveness,” Modi said in a statement sent by the BJP on Monday night. “It is natural for the spirit of bipartisanship to get temporarily lost in the midst of an election campaign, but now is the time to regain it.”
The polls, which have overestimated the BJP’s strength in the past two national elections, indicate the best-ever performance for the bloc led by the BJP, a party rooted in Hindu nationalism that has drawn criticism from opponents who say it will quash minority rights.
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“Barring a complete upset that throws our calculations out of gear, they will have sufficiently large numbers as to muscle their way when dealing with coalition partners, if need be,” said Sumit Ganguly, the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, referring to the BJP bloc. “The lure of political office is so great that parties will flock to the winner.”
Nine rounds of voting started on April 7 to pick 543 parliamentary seats across 28 states. Turnout averaged a record 66.4 percent, the Election Commission of India said, topping the previous high of 64 percent in the 1984 vote. In the 2009 election, the Congress alliance won 260 seats and the BJP group took 160. The BJP and its allies did best in a poll by Today’s Chanakya, which showed them winning 340 seats compared with 70 seats for the Congress bloc. An ABP News-Nielsen exit poll forecast Modi’s group would win 281 seats, compared with 97 for Congress and its allies. A Times Now-ORG India poll gave 249 to the BJP group, with 148 going to the Congress alliance. Three other polls showed the BJP group winning or close to a majority.
“There has to be an element of caution because their track record at previous elections has been poor,” S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, said by phone from New Delhi, referring to exit polls. “They’re better at predicting the direction rather than the precise number of seats.”
Exit polls in the last two elections have given the BJP and its allies more seats than it actually won — by about 30 seats in 2009 and as many as 70 seats in 2004. Congress’ surprise win to take power a decade ago led to the biggest one-day sell-off of stocks in India in more than four years, while its re-election in 2009 boosted the stock market in India by a record 17 percent on the next trading day.
Modi’s rise has split the nation of 1.2 billion, where violence between Hindus and Muslims has played a defining role in politics since independence. The chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, Modi has been accused of failing to stop riots in the western state 12 years ago that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Modi has repeatedly denied the accusations, and a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance from reaching those being attacked. Even so, regional party leaders such as Mamata Banerjee have blasted Modi over the riots on the campaign trail and said they wouldn’t join a government led by him.
President Obama said India’s ability to hold the largest democratic election in history was “a vibrant demonstration of our shared values of diversity and freedom.”
“We look forward to the formation of a new government once election results are announced and to working closely with India’s next administration,” he said in a White House statement.
Regional parties unaffiliated with the two major blocs are forecast to win between 146 and 165 seats, down from about 180 seats now, the polls showed. Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress based in West Bengal state and J. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu are forecast to be the largest regional parties, with both winning 20 to 31 seats, according to the polls.
Modi has campaigned on his record in Gujarat, which has outpaced the national economic growth rate in 11 of the past 12 financial years for which data is available.
His main opponent is Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of India’s foremost political dynasty and vice president of Congress, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in January he wouldn’t stand for a third term. Gandhi has been campaigning on the party’s record of spending on programs ranging from cheap food to guaranteed work in rural areas.
The victor will need to revive an economy growing close to the slowest pace in a decade. Consumer-price inflation averaged 10 percent last year, eroding purchasing power in a nation where more than 800 million people live on less than $2 a day.
“The BJP has to proceed with caution,” said Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., adding that Modi would have to avoid measures that would inflame religious tensions in India. “This mandate is fundamentally one about development and about the economy.”