India’s marathon general elections will conclude on Saturday after six gruelling weeks on the campaign trail with Prime Minister Narendra Modi headlining the 904 candidates who will compete in 57 seats across seven states and Union territories in the final phase of the Lok Sabha polls.

Polling officials collect EVMs and other election equipment in Kolkata on Friday. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

All eyes will be on the final turnout figures in what is a scorching summer across the heartland and on exit polls, which will start airing from Saturday evening.

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Polling is scheduled in all 13 seats of Punjab and four of Himachal Pradesh, 13 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, nine in West Bengal, eight in Bihar, six in Odisha and three seats in Jharkhand besides Chandigarh. Polling for the remaining 42 assembly constituencies of Odisha and bypolls to six assembly seats in Himachal Pradesh will also take place simultaneously.

“The Election Commission of India (ECI) is all geared up to hold Phase 7 of Lok Sabha polls tomorrow (Saturday), which also is the last phase… This will mark a grand finish to world’s largest polling marathon that began on 19th of last month (April),” ECI said in a statement on Friday.

Among the prominent candidates in fray are Modi — who is currently meditating in Kanniyakumari’s Vivekananda Rock and is seeking a third straight term from Varanasi — Trinamool Congress general secretary Abhishek Banerjee from Diamond Harbour in West Bengal, Misa Bharati, daughter of Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad from Patlipura and former union law minister and BJP leader, Ravi Shankar Prasad, from Patna, both in Bihar, former union commerce minister and Congress leader Anand Sharma from Kangra and union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur from Hamirpur, both in Himachal Pradesh, and BJP’s Jay Panda from Kendrapara and Congress leader Srikant Jena from Balasore, both in Odisha.

The BJP holds 25 of these seats, and the Congress eight.

Voting started on April 19 at a slow pace but picked up in the subsequent phases. The highest voting percentage of 69.2% was recorded in the fourth phase and lowest of 62.2% in the fifth phase. Across the six phases completed, the turnout is 66.01%, compared to 67.3% for the corresponding constituencies in 2019. In absolute terms, 577 million voters have exercised their franchise.

Roughly 100 million people are eligible to vote in this round.

Saturday’s voting will mark the end to the polling process that has already covered 486 Lok Sabha seats in 28 states and Union territories.

The assemblies of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim also went to polls. Counting of votes will be taken up on June 4. In Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the counting for the assembly polls will be held on June 2.

ECI said polling parties were dispatched along with machines and poll materials to 109,000 polling stations, where facilities such as shade, drinking water, ramps, and toilets are being provided. The poll body also directed officials to take adequate measures to manage the adverse impact of hot weather or rainfall wherever predicted.

“In spite of hot weather conditions, voters have turned up in huge numbers at the polling stations in the past phases. In the last two phases, female voter turnout percentage has surpassed male voter turnout. The commission has called upon voters to turn out in greater numbers at polling stations and vote with responsibility and pride,” ECI said.

The six-week polls were a mind-boggling affair in a country where the voting population is larger than the combined populations of the US and the UK, Brazil, Russia, Japan, and France. The polls took place in seven phases — on April 19, 26, May 7, 13, 20, 25, and June 1 — a testament to the daunting logistical and security challenges in overseeing an electorate stretching from the Himalayas in the north to deserts in the west, insurgent-infested tropical jungles in the centre and the coastal plains in the south. ECI officials used 41 helicopters, 84 special trains and nearly 100,000 vehicles to ferry polling, security personnel and electronic voting machines to inhospitable heights and desolate constituencies.

Even though 8,360 candidates from 744 political parties and independents are contesting, the election was mostly a bipolar contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of 38 parties and Congress led India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc of 28 parties. The NDA contested 540 seats with BJP contesting 441 seats and the INDIA bloc fielded candidates (more than one in Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal, where the partners also contested against each other) in 543 seats with the Congress contesting on 328 seats even though its candidates in Surat and Indore withdrew from the contest and nomination of Samajwadi Party candidate from Khajurao was rejected. The NDA did not contest three seats in Kashmir.

The Opposition focussed on the Constitution and discontent around local issues, unemployment and opportunities for young people.

While both parties started the campaign positively, with their respective “guarantees”, the BJP eventually returned to its core Hindutva platform, even as the Congress and other opposition parties warned that the Constitution itself was under threat from the BJP’s majoritarian policies.

The fraughtness of the campaign could be gauged from the fact that political parties lodged about 425 major complaints with the Election Commission between March 16 and May 14, accusing rivals of violating the Model Code of Conduct. The BJP lodged about 95 of these while the Congress lodged about 170. “Most of these complaints have been acted upon,” the poll body said in its press note dated May 14. HT asked EC for updated data but did not receive a response.

ECI effected seizures worth 9,000 crore till May 19, including cash, drugs, liquor and other freebies. Of the total, about 45% (by value) were drugs and narcotics substances, the election commission said.

In Uttar Pradesh, Maharajganj, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Deoria, Bansgaon (SC), Ghosi, Salempur, Ballia, Ghazipur, Chandauli, Varanasi, Mirzapur and Robertsganj (SC) will go to the polls, spread across 11 districts.

From Chandauli, Maharajganj and Mirzapur, Union ministers Mahendra Nath Pandey, Pankaj Chaudhary and Anupriya Patel respectively are contesting. Late Mukhtar Ansari’s brother Afzal Ansari is in the fray from Ghazipur and former prime minister Chandrashekhar’s son Neeraj Shekhar is contesting from Ballia.

In Bengal, the battle is for the TMC bastion of south Bengal.

The seventh phase will cover Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jayanagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin, and Kolkata Uttar. The TMC holds all seats.

The minority-dominated Basirhat Lok Sabha seat, and specifically the Sandeshkhali segment, is a microcosm of the broader electoral battle as it garnered national attention due to allegations of atrocities on women and land grabs by local TMC leaders.

The BJP has fielded Rekha Patra, a prominent local protestor, against TMC veteran Haji Nurul Islam. The CPI (M) has fielded former MLA Nirapada Sardar, making this a three-cornered contest.

In Punjab, prominent candidates in the fray are four-time MP Preneet Kaur, former chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, three-time MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal and Ravneet Singh Bittu.

The BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal are contesting the polls on their own for the first time since 1996 while two INDIA bloc parties — the Congress and the ruling Aam Aadmi Party — have fielded their own candidates. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has extensively campaigned for the AAP.

In Mandi, actor Kangana Ranaut is taking on Himachal Pradesh minister Vikramaditya Singh Singh, the heir of the erstwhile Rampur royal family and son of six-time former chief minister Virbhadra Singh.

Union minister Anurag Thakur is seeking a fifth term from Hamirpur. For chief minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, the six assembly bypolls are also a battle for survival.

In Bihar, Union minister RK Singh is aiming at a hat-trick from Arrah, where his principal challenger is Sudama Prasad, a sitting MLA of the CPI(ML) Liberation.

In Patna Sahib, veteran BJP MP Ravi Shankar Prasad is aiming at a second consecutive Lok Sabha term. His principal challenger is Congress spokesman Anshul Avijit, son of former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and grandson of Jagjivan Ram.

In Pataliputra, Misa Bharti is trying her luck for the third time. BJP MP Ram Kripal Yadav is aiming at a hat-trick.