Campaigning in the most acrimonious election in recent Indian history has ended with an admonishment by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, of some of his hardline candidates for praising Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin.
A six-week campaign dominated by national security issues and increasingly brazen rhetoric came to a head this week after a candidate for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Madhya Pradesh state said she believed Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, was “a patriot”. She later apologised. Three other BJP members also weighed in on Gandhi’s murder.
Meanwhile, in the crucial state of West Bengal campaigning was brought to an unprecedented early end on Thursday after street fights broke out between BJP supporters and those of a bitter rival, the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.
About 60 million people are eligible to vote in the seventh and final round of voting on Sunday, and the results of the entire contest will be released progressively throughout the day from 7am on Thursday.
Modi, who ordinarily avoids commenting on controversial remarks by members of his Hindu nationalist party, said in a TV interview on Friday that “the comments on Gandhi and Godse are deplorable, disgusting and are not language fit for civilised society”.
Godse’s deadly resentment of Gandhi for supposedly indulging Muslim demands in the years leading to India’s independence has existed on the fringes of India’s Hindu nationalist movement for decades. In recent years, however, those fringes have become more powerful.
In the frantic final hours of campaigning on Friday, Modi announced he would hold his first press conference in India since being elected five years ago. But after speaking briefly at the event at about 5pm, he declined to answer any questions.
His main opponent, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, used his final press conference of the campaign to criticise election authorities for curtailing campaigning in West Bengal state, arguing the suspension was tailored to coincide with Modi’s last campaign rally in the state.
Modi wields the largest parliamentary majority of any leader in decades, but started the year looking vulnerable, having struggled to deliver on promises to create tens of millions of jobs and double the incomes of Indian farmers, a crucial constituency in a country where nearly 50% of people are employed in agriculture.
That changed on 14 February, when a Kashmiri militant drove a car laden with explosives into an army convoy, killing 40 paramilitaries. India retaliated by striking targets inside Pakistan, which hit back the following day, bringing the countries closer to all-out war than they had been in two decades.
India’s retaliation – in contrast to the “strategic restraint” policy of the previous government – became a major theme of the early campaign. Modi has styled himself as the national “chowkidar”, or watchman.
“There hasn’t been an election so much about national security in three or four decades,” said Rajat Sethi, a BJP campaign strategist.
The main opposition Congress party has sought to shift the focus to social issues, campaigning hard on promises to guarantee the country’s poorest citizens a 72,000-rupee (£800) annual income and to double healthcare spending in the next five years.
Gandhi has portrayed Modi as an authoritarian whose government bullies and neglects the country’s 300 million people from religious minorities.
“Modi’s politics is divisive,” said Sam Pitroda, a Congress elder. “Modi’s politics is fear. It has no substance. He has not created jobs. He has messed up the economy. He has ruined institutions. He has captured democracy.”
Privately, BJP officials are more willing to admit that the wave of enthusiasm that Modi rode into office in 2014 has not materialised with the same force this time. That deficit, as well as the length of the campaign, has contributed to its rancorous atmosphere, said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist who teaches at Haryana state’s Ashoka University.
“One effect of this prolonged polling is that it nurtures uncertainty [which] translates into more virulent forms of campaigning: the jibes, the personal critiques, the provocations.”
Uniting India’s diverse Hindu community into a single voting bloc, often by pitting it against the country’s minorities, is a key BJP strategy that also featured strongly during the campaign.
The BJP president, Amit Shah, told a rally in Assam state in April that if re-elected the BJP would rid India of unauthorised migrants – except for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
The BJP has defended its record on minority issues, arguing that previous governments pretended to favour Muslims to win their votes, but failed to deliver on improving their livelihoods.
Though dozens of Muslims and low-caste Hindus have been killed in high-profile lynchings, instances of large-scale religious riots have declined, said the defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman.
“Except for very few instances there have been no instances of communal rioting,” she told reporters in Delhi last week. “Five years have gone without any major incidents.”
Polls – considered harder to conduct reliably than in the west – broadly show the BJP is likely to be the largest party in parliament but will fall short of a majority and need to form coalitions to govern.
Sethi, who worked on campaigns in the country’s east and in Jammu and Kashmir state, said the BJP was better resourced, more disciplined and had stronger on-the-ground operations than its opponents, and so would grind out victories in close seats. “[Indian] elections are like playing many games of chess at once,” he said.
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