India's Modi shows confidence as opposition dismisses ominous exit polls

By Krishna N. Das
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India's PM Modi receives a flower bouquet from BJP President Amit Shah upon his arrival to attend a thanksgiving ceremony by BJP leaders to its allies at the party headquarters in New Delhi

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a flower bouquet from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah upon his arrival to attend a thanksgiving ceremony by BJP leaders to its allies at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Political allies swathed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a victory garland on Tuesday, seeking to project confidence he would win a second straight term in a general election, but the opposition Congress party dismissed predictions it would lose.

Exit polls have predicted a clear win for Modi in the election that ended on Sunday, but such polls in India have proved misleading before, and counting of votes cast in the seven-phase contest will take place on Thursday.

The result is expected later that day.

The ruling coalition, led by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is projected to win between 339 and 365 seats in the 545-member lower house of parliament with a Congress-led opposition alliance getting only 77 to 108, an exit poll from India Today Axis showed.

Modi met leaders from his ruling alliance, receiving garlands and shawls from them in a show of optimism.

Flanked by BJP president Amit Shah, Modi met cabinet ministers, party colleagues and dozens of the leaders from regional blocs that are part of the alliance.

Seated before a sign reading "Welcome and Thanksgiving Meeting" at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, Modi was also given a meters-long, outsized garland.

But Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the younger sister of party president Rahul Gandhi, urged party workers to ignore vote surveys, not lose heart, and to remain vigilant at vote-count centers.

"Don't let rumors and exit polls discourage you. This is being spread to break your determination," she said in an audio message late on Monday.

"This has further raised the need for you to remain alert. Please keep vigil outside strongrooms and counting centers. We are confident that our combined efforts will bear fruit," she said, referring to centers where electronic voting machines are kept.

The Election Commission said it had received some complaints about attempts to tamper with voting machines in strongrooms, but they were not true.

"All such reports and allegations are absolutely false, and factually incorrect," it said in a statement.

The two Gandhis are members of the latest generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to aspire to govern India.

The staggered general election, billed as the world's biggest democratic exercise with some 900 million eligible voters, began on April 11.

FOCUS ON FAMILY

Confident of victory, the BJP said the Congress party must think about whether the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty still enjoys the support of the people.

The family has dominated politics since the British colonial rulers left in 1947, with three prime ministers.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP member who would likely retain his role in a new Modi cabinet, said Congress could no longer rely on the family to win votes.

"Leaders are judged on merit and not on caste or family names," Jaitley said in a Facebook post.

"The prime minister’s style of rising above caste and concentrating on performance related issues received far more acceptability with the electorate."

Some Congress officials say it is wrong to blame the Gandhi family every time the party fares badly and point to three wins in state assembly elections last year under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Devjyot Ghoshal, Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, William Maclean)