At least seven exit polls released by Indian media organisations Sunday night predicted that Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its allies would win at least 280 of the 545 seats in the lower house of Parliament, empowering them to choose the next prime minister.
If the actual results back the polls up, it will be a much more dominating performance than many analysts had thought was possible. Official results are expected Thursday.
«The exit polls are surprising,» said Sudha Pai, a former political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the capital. Modi’s social media efforts and the fact that the opposition was divided delivered bigger-than-expected gains, she said.
Similar exit polls in other recent Indian elections have accurately predicted the broader trends.
The exit polls this time forecast that the Indian National Congress, the leading opposition party, would do marginally better than its stunning defeat in the last elections in 2014. But it still seemed destined to remain a distant second.
Rahul Gandhi, Congress’ leader and the scion of an Indian political dynasty, had tried to pick up votes by appealing to communal harmony and minority rights. But that seemed no match for Modi’s aggressive and well-financed campaign machine, which enjoys the fervent support of many grassroots groups within India’s Hindu majority.
«One thing we know for sure is that Modi remains incredibly popular despite everything that’s happened in the last five years,» said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. «Nothing really sticks to him.»
The elections were a six-week affair. Voting was conducted in stages, with different parts of the country voting at different times. The first votes were cast in mid-April and the last ones were Sunday. All results will be released together, on Thursday.
Indian officials moved from constituency to constituency across this vast landscape, from high snowy mountains to lush tropical isles in the Andaman Sea.
Wherever he campaigned, Modi made national security a major issue. Grumbles about his missteps on the economy had been growing, and farmers had protested against his government, saying its policies were making them poorer.
But in February, Modi got a huge boost. After militants struck Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim, Modi ordered airstrikes on Pakistan.
No matter that independent security analysts said the airstrikes missed their targets. Or that Pakistan downed an Indian fighter jet the next day.
Indian flags popped up across the country overnight, raised by a burst of jingoism, and Modi’s approval ratings swiftly increased.
As news of the exit polls spread, the people most distressed were India’s minorities. Under Modi’s government, mob violence against Muslims, who make up about 14%, and lower caste Hindus has increased, and the bloodshed often goes unpunished.
Modi’s brand of politics, rooted in Hindu supremacist groups that believe Hindus are the rightful rulers of India, has polarised this heterogeneous country, raising fear and tensions.
If the exit poll data is any indication, it seems the opposition parties’ complaints that India has become more divided under Modi did not change many voters’ minds. According to the data, Modi’s party won in most of the areas it won in the last election.
The big losses that some political analysts had predicted in northern India do not seem to have materialised.
Like any exit polls, those in India are imperfect, but their accuracy has improved in recent years.
The major exit polls in 2014 correctly predicted a win for the BJP-led coalition. In 2009, exit polls accurately forecast that Congress would gain the most seats, though the data underestimated the number ultimately won by the Congress alliance.
The current exit polls were conducted by Indian research and survey organisations, many with decades of experience, which partnered with news media outlets. According to the polling organisations, the sample size for each exit poll varied from 40,000 voters to 2 million.
Some analysts have cautioned that exit polls may overstate Modi’s support because some people would be scared to say they voted against him. But overall, political scientists said they seemed reliable.
«In the majority of the cases, exit polls have depicted the true picture,» said Josukutty Cheriantharayil Abraham, director of the survey research centre at the University of Kerala. «It may not be correct in terms of the number of seats or vote percentage, but it could definitely show the trends.»
Gandhi did not comment on the exit polls. After the voting ended, he complained in a Twitter message that India’s election commission’s «capitulation before Mr Modi and his gang is obvious to all Indians».
In contrast, the BJP posted a cartoon on Twitter of Modi crushing a scattered opposition with a giant lawn mower as spectators give him the thumbs-up.
«With this,» the illustration read, «the opportunistic hodgepodge is over.»
The New York Times