India polls: Last-minute surge for AAP may cut Modi's margin in Varanasi

India's election frontrunner Narendra Modi speaks during a political rally in Mirzapur on May 9, 2014. Mr Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, is widely expected to lead his party to victory in the general election and win the contest in Varanasi. Exi
India's election frontrunner Narendra Modi speaks during a political rally in Mirzapur on May 9, 2014. Mr Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, is widely expected to lead his party to victory in the general election and win the contest in Varanasi. Exit poll results will be announced on Monday while the actual results are announced on Friday. -- PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - A last minute surge in support for the anti-corruption Aam Admi Party and Congress could narrow the victory margin for opposition frontrunner Narendra Modi in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and take some of the gloss of victory for his Bharatiya Janata Party, observers said, as voting ended in India's prolonged national polls.

On the eve of polling, a prominent Muslim body, Mufti Boad of Varanasi, came out in support of Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal who is contesting against Mr Modi and has travelled from village to village over the last month holding scores of public meetings and drawing the attention and in some quarters appreciation of residents of Varanasi.

The Congress too made a last push for support with Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi drawing massive crowds during his road show on Friday even as Mr Modi was denied permission to hold a meeting in the city by local authorities who cited security risk.

Varanasi, a spiritual centre for Hindus has become a high profile battlezone between Mr Modi, who has his roots in Hindu nationalism, and Mr Kejriwal, a bureaucrat and social activist turned politician, with the Congress fielding local politician Ajai Rai at a latter stage.

Dominantly Hindu, the parliamntary seat, which includes both rural and urban areas also has a sizeable Muslim population, including weavers of the famed Benaras sari, who make up around 20 per cent of the population.

The BJP has had a hold over the seat for the most part of two decades, it lost the seat to the Congress in 2004 and won in back in 2009 but by a slim margin

While talk of a Modi wave has gained ground, analysts said that the victory margin would not be as high as expected.

``It is not like Modi is going to sweep Varanasi and win by a massive margin 200,000 or 300,000 as expected. It doesnt seem to be that kind of situation now,'' said Prof Chauthi Ram Yadav of the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi.

``Some 80 to 90 per cent of the Muslim support is going to Kejriwal who has gone from village to village in the campaign and that has had an impact in the rural areas.''

Varanasi, which polled on Monday along with 40 other constituencies in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal in the ninth and final phase of polling, saw a massive 44.7 per cent voter turnout till 3 pm local time in spite of the searing heat that has swept the Indian plains.

In fact accross the 41 seats , voters stood in searing heat in the plains of northern India to vote, galvanised by the polarizing figure of opposition front-runner Narendra Modi, three-time chief minister of Gujarat.

India voted in staggered elections that started on April 7 and ended yesterday across nine phases for the 543 seat in the Indian Parliament.

Nearly two-thirds of those eligible voted, with the thinnest attendance in the Kashmir Valley. Parts of India, including West Bengal state, saw as much as 70 percent polling as India's Muslim minority, worried over the prospects of life under a Hindu nationalist, turned out to vote. Some 14 percent of Indians are Muslim, but the proportion is higher in states such as populous Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

While the polls have been relatively peaceful in most parts of India, passions have run high also thanks to the bitter animosity between the Gandhi family that dominates the ruling Congress Party and Mr Modi. The BJP's candidate for premiership has struck with searing barbs aimed at Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, whom he derisively calls princeling, and Mr Gandhi's brother in law Robert Vadra, whose business successes have coincided with Congress rule.

The Gandhis have struck back at Mr Modi, faulting him for revealing his marital status late and suggesting he used government machinery to spy on young women in Gujarat. Congress also says Modi, who conducted no less than 440 rallies over six months, is an acronym for Model Of Dividing India, a reference to his Hindu nationalist orientation.

Even so, every party has artfully used religious symbols.

Yesterday, Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, whose party has attracted a large Muslim following in several constituencies, spoke to reporters with his forehead smeared with holy ash. Mr Kejriwal, who rose to fame campaigning against corruption, is contesting his first parliamentary election and against Mr Modi in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, also called Benares.