After 39 days of polling involving as many as 900 million voters, balloting in India’s vast parliamentary election is coming to a close on Sunday, starting a countdown to the announcement of final results on Thursday.
After sweeping to an outright majority during the last elections in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., are widely expected to lose seats this time.
Deepening concerns about the economy, and about accusations that the B.J.P.’s Hindu-first conservative creed is putting Muslims and other minorities at risk, have led many Indians who voted for Mr. Modi’s party last time to say they might switch. The biggest beneficiary of such a shift would be the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi.
But Mr. Modi’s popularity remains vast, particularly among India’s Hindu majority, and many Indians credit him with programs that have helped the poor and cut through red tape and corruption.
No one is counting out the B.J.P. just yet. And some analysts believe it is still possible that the party will win another majority, or at least be within striking distance of a coalition that would put Mr. Modi back in the prime minister’s office.
Here’s a look at how the world’s biggest election unfolded and what to expect in the next few days.
Here come the exit polls
Exit polls will start being released soon after the polls close Sunday evening, but the official results will not be released until Thursday. In the meantime, the surveys will drive big headlines in the Indian news media that either the B.J.P. or Congress — or both parties — will seize on as evidence of impending victory.
“In the majority of the cases, exit polls have depicted the true picture,’’ said Josukutty Cheriantharayil Abraham, an assistant professor of political science and director of the survey research center 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, who is likely to win and lose. In the past, that’s been true for the majority of the cases, but there are cases it has gone wrong.”
It also bears remembering that this is a parliamentary election — it’s about parties, not a simple choice between Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi. Local issues and rivalries always loom large in Indian elections. And deal-making with smaller parties organized around region or identity may yet play a big role in determining who will become prime minister.
How will we find out the results?
The vote itself has taken more than five weeks, conducted entirely on hundreds of thousands of computerized voting machines that were hauled from state to state across India’s vast territory.
But the official counting will take just part of the day on Thursday, because the totals are already noted in the voting machines themselves. The votes will be analyzed, and in some cases verified against printed ballot copies generated by each voting machine, starting at 8 a.m. on Thursday. The official results are expected to be announced around noon local time.
What if no party wins a majority?
It’s very possible that the B.J.P. will not win 272 or more out of 543 parliamentary seats being voted on this year. If that happens, it will come down to deal-making to form a coalition.
“Every leader of a major regional front knows that he or she might be able to provide the seats that will put the party over the top,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Many are waiting by the phone should their number be called on May 23.”
Here are three of the most influential regional parties waiting for that call.
Bahujan Samaj: The party counts Dalits, or low-caste Indians, as its core constituency. Mayawati, the party’s leader, has not announced whom she would back in a coalition scenario, though many believe she is amenable to the B.J.P. if the party offers her a senior role in the government.
Telangana Rashtra Samiti: Based in Telangana, a state in southern India, the party has no regional political rivals and is likely to win around 17 seats. The party’s leader, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, has already announced that it would join an alliance under the right terms.
Biju Janata Dal: A powerful party in Odisha, a state in eastern India, the B.J.D. faces competition from the B.J.P. on its home turf. It has allied with the B.J.P. before, but may think twice if its political independence is threatened.
A record vote by Indian women
For the first time, female voters are expected to cast as many as half the total ballots — and perhaps more. Given that officials expect up to 900 million total votes nationwide, that’s a huge number. But more important, it means that Indian women’s votes will at last be proportional to their numbers — even if they are not yet fairly represented in the number of parliamentary seats they hold.
Both in the number of female voters, and in total turnout across the country, the 2019 elections are expected to set records, further expanding India’s role as the world’s largest democracy. Watch here for updates on turnout numbers as they are announced.
Jeffrey Gettleman and Ayesha Venkataraman contributed reporting.