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Record India election ends as polls tip Modi triumph

Indian voters cast final ballots on Monday in an election that saw a record 551 million people vote over five weeks, with exit polls indicating a swing behind Narendra Modi's right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

NEW DELHI: Indians cast final ballots on Monday in a record election that saw 551 million people vote over five weeks, with exit polls predicting a new right-wing government under Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.

The final phase of voting in 41 constituencies ended at 6:00 pm (1230 GMT), with four out of five exit polls released soon afterwards pointing to a narrow majority for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies.

The surveys backed forecasts before voting started on April 7 that the BJP -- and its allies -- would inflict a humiliating defeat on the ruling leftist Congress party and its leaders, the Gandhi political dynasty.

"The politics of arrogance, dynasty and inheritance is being rejected by the people of India," BJP spokesman and parliamentarian Ravi Shankar Prasad told a press conference.

"The politics of initiative, hard work and accomplishment is being rewarded."

But as the stock market hit a new record high on hopes that Modi can jumpstart the flagging economy, analysts urged caution due to notorious forecasting failures in 2004 and 2009.

"Congress has decided not to participate in any discussion on exit poll on any channel or any platform," Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed told reporters.

Predictions for the BJP and its allies nation-wide ranged from 249 to 289, with a poll of polls giving it a wafer thin majority with 273 out of the total 543 seats.

Modi has already indicated that he is looking to find further allies among a host of regional parties which would give him a much more stable coalition.

The predictions, if confirmed, would spell the worst ever result for Congress and be a stringing rebuke to the latest generation of the Gandhi dynasty, 43-year-old Rahul, who has led campaigning nationally for the first time.

Official results are due on Friday.

Shortly after polls closed for the last time, the Election Commission gave final figures for the world's biggest election, saying 551 million had voted -- 130 million more than in 2009 -- with turnout also at a record high of 66.38 percent.

High turnout often augurs well for the opposition and is usually a signal that voters are keen for a change.

The main contest of the day was in the sacred city of Varanasi where 63-year-old Modi was standing as a candidate and hoping for a crowning victory on the final day of voting.

In a video message, he paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands who "stood out in the scorching sun for hours to give strength to our democracy" over the last five weeks.

Writing later on his blog, he struck a conciliatory tone, saying that "it is natural for the spirit of bi-partisanship to get temporarily lost in the midst of an election campaign but now is the time to regain it".

His decision to stand in Varanasi was rich in religious symbolism and seen as reinforcing his Hindu nationalist credentials during a campaign in which he steered clear of his customary hardline rhetoric.

The four-time chief minister of the western state of Gujarat has campaigned on a platform of clean government and development to revive the economy after 10 years of left-leaning Congress rule.

But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed to curb swiftly deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which left at least 1,000 people dead shortly after he came to power there.

Europe and the United States boycotted him for a decade over the violence.

"With him winning the Varanasi seat, I am also confident about the development of this millennia-old city as a tourist destination," Setupati Tripathi told AFP after voting in Varanasi.

Anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal from the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party also competed from the city on the holy river Ganges and was hoping for an upset.

Exit surveys showed support evaporating for his party nation-wide, however, which became a sensation in December when it swept to power after state elections in New Delhi.

Voters are thought to have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years.

Despite a decade of high economic growth, a fall to a decade-low of 5.0 percent has badly hurt the party, run by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has dominated post-independence India.

Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who rose through the BJP ranks, has derided Rahul Gandhi as a reluctant "prince" whose lacklustre campaign has latterly been overshadowed by his sister Priyanka's electioneering.

The Gandhi siblings, joined by their mother and party president Sonia, have hit back, accusing Modi of being dangerously divisive and prejudiced against the country's 150 million Muslims.

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