7-Phase Lok Sabha Election Ends Today With PM Modi's Varanasi In Focus

Much of the focus in this phase will be on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's seat of Varanasi in UP, which he is hoping to win for a third straight time.

7-Phase Lok Sabha Election Ends Today With PM Modi's Varanasi In Focus
New Delhi:

The seventh and final phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha election has started. 

Fifty-seven seats across seven states - 13 in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, nine in Bengal, eight in Bihar, six in Odisha, four in Himachal Pradesh, and three in Jharkhand, as well as Chandigarh - will complete a mammoth exercise that began 55 days ago - on April 19. 

Voting is taking place amid a scorching heat wave across parts of the country, including those voting. At least 10 heat-related deaths have been reported from Odisha, while seven poll officials in Bihar and UP have died in the past 24 hours because of the temperatures.

Overall more than 30 heat-related deaths are suspected, as day-time temperatures cross 45 degrees Celsius on a daily basis in the above states, leading to concern over voter turnout.

Campaigning for the final phase played out against a myriad flashpoints between the ruling BJP and the opposition INDIA bloc, including the clock ticking down to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal - arrested in the liquor policy scam - returning to jail after his bail ends.

Much to the chagrin of the Enforcement Directorate, Mr Kejriwal got bail so he could campaign ahead of the election in Delhi and Punjab, the two states where his party has power. The wily AAP boss has tried to leverage his time in jail to flip voters on the fence.

As the election draws to a close the focus has also been on the INDIA bloc's prime ministerial candidate... or lack of one, which has been a source of frequent BJP jibes.

Congress boss Mallikarjun Kharge has told NDTV in the past this question will be answered - by member-parties sitting together - after the results are declared. In other words, there is no point in talking about who will become the Prime Minister if the coalition does not win.

READ | "Rahul My Choice For PM, Priyanka Should Have Stood": Kharge

Today, however, he broke from that line and chose Rahul Gandhi - who, admittedly, does appear to be the most likely consensus candidate if one is needed - as the PM face.

Another headline point in this phase was the BJP-BJD squabble in Odisha, which is holding simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's "advanced age and health issues" have been used by Mr Modi to attack the BJD boss.

READ | "Conspiracy" Over Naveen Patnaik's Health, Claims PM

Mr Patnaik, 77, hit back with a jibe of his own, declaring that if the Prime Minister, 73, were concerned about his health he should feel free to talk to him directly.

Also, before this phase, ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched a final attack on the BJP, writing a letter urging voters to make the most of a "final chance to ensure our democracy and Constitution are protected from repeated assaults by a despotic regime".

READ | "Final Chance To Protect Nation From...": Manmohan Singh

Dr Singh also took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly over controversial comments made during a rally in Rajasthan's Bhilwara in an earlier phase, in which the Congress veteran had been named. Mr Modi, whose party received an Election Commission notice, referred to Muslims and an excerpt from his predecessor's speech about ensuring equal access to resources, particularly for underprivileged or marginalised communities.

READ | Campaigning Ends, PM Meditates In Kanniyakumari

Finally, Mr Modi's meditation visit to Kanniyakumari in Tamil Nadu has sparked a row, particularly since his party has historically struggled in the southern state and the late-election visit has been seen by the opposition as an way to influence voters.

The BJP, however, has insisted this is a personal visit and has no election link.

PM's Varanasi Bastion

Much of the focus in this phase will be on Mr Modi's seat of Varanasi in UP, which he is hoping to win for a third straight time. The PM romped to victory in 2019 with nearly 6.8 lakh votes and more than 63 per cent of the vote share. He faces the Congress' Ajay Rai.

The Prime Minister filed his nomination on May 14 accompanied by a phalanx of senior leaders from the BJP and its partners, including party boss JP Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah, as well as Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma.

This was after a flashy six km roadshow the evening before.

Mr Rai has contested each of the past three elections from the temple town; the past two as a Congress leader and the 2009 poll as a member of Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party.

READ | PM Files Varanasi Nomination, Then A Massive Show Of Strength

His best return was in 2019 - 1.5 lakh votes and around 14 per cent of the vote share.

Hindus make up around 75 per cent of Varanasi's demographic and Muslims 20 per cent. 

An estimated 10 per cent are from Scheduled Tribes while 0.7 are from Scheduled Castes. The rural-urban split of the population is 65 to 35 per cent.

Away from Varanasi, the spotlight will be split between Punjab and Bengal.

Battle For Punjab

There is an intriguing AAP vs Congress vs BJP battle in Punjab. The AAP and Congress are, on paper, part of the INDIA opposition bloc and are contesting as allies in neighbouring Delhi.

In Punjab, however, the two are 'enemies', a strange state of affairs replicated in Bengal, where the Congress and the Trinamool are rivals despite being INDIA members.

The 'friendly fire' contests have been criticised by the BJP, which has said the bloc's failure to agree seat-share deals underlines its unstable nature and makes it a poor choice.

The battle for Punjab is complicated by the Akali Dal - a former BJP ally that walked out over farmers' protests from 2020 that continue to simmer - fighting independently too.

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Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal campaigning in Punjab (File).

In 2019 the Congress - then led by ex-Chief Minister Amarinder Singh - got eight seats. 

The Akalis and BJP (then allies) got two each and the AAP got one. 

Fast-forward three years and the AAP thumped the Congress in the state poll, winning 92 of 117 seats. A faction-ridden Congress got just 18, the Akalis three and the BSP got one.

Significantly, the BJP contested 73 and won just two. This was against the backdrop of farmers' protests, which rumbles on to this day, suggesting it might struggle this time too.

Rumble In Bengal

Only nine of Bengals' 42 seats will vote today. However, these include the prestigious Kolkata North and South seats and Diamond Harbour, which was won in 2014 and 2019 by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's nephew Abhishek Banerjee, who is seeking re-election.

Mr Banerjee and his aunt are among the BJP's fiercest public critics. 

The nephew faces a BJP veteran, Abhijit Das, in the Diamond Harbour race. Diamond Harbour was previously a CPIM bastion; the party held it from 1967 to 2004.

The Kolkata seats were also won by the Trinamool last time.

Add image caption here

Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (File).

The South seat is Ms Banerjee's bastion, which she held from 1991 till 2011; this was when she was elected as the MLA from Bhabinipur and quit her MP post to become chief minister.

It was won by Subrata Bakshi after she stepped down and by Mala Roy in 2019. Ms Roy will defend her seat against the CPIM's Saira Shah Halim and the BJP's Debasri Choudhary.

The North seat is a new one; it was created ahead of the 2009 election and has been the Trinamool's since, with Sudip Bandyopadhyay looking for a fourth consecutive win.

Among other seats polling today are other Trinamool strongholds of Barasat, Basirhat, and Dum Dum, from which party veteran Saugata Roy is also looking for a fourth straight win.

In fact, in 2019 the Trinamool won all nine seats polling today.

Himachal Pradesh Challenge

There are only four seats in the hill state and the BJP won them all last time, as they did in 2014 too. The 2024 election will be a straight fight between them and the Congress.

READ | 6 Disqualified Congress MLAs Join BJP In Himachal

Himachal Pradesh made headlines after cross voting by Congress MLAs in the Rajya Sabha election almost brought down the party's (hard-won) state government. Six MLAs defied the party's whip, for which they were disqualified. Three have now joined the BJP.

There are two big names in play here for the BJP (and one for the Congress).

For the BJP, this is actor-politician Kangana Ranaut's poll debut, and she goes straight in at the deep end. She faces the Congress' state boss, Vikramaditya Singh, from Mandi. Mr Singh is the son of the late Virbhadra Singh, a Congress icon and six-time former Chief Minister.

The other big name is Union Minister Anurag Thakur, who is looking for a fifth consecutive win from Hamirpur, the seat thrice held by his father and ex-Chief Minister PK Dhamal.

Mr Thakur, who got 68 per cent of the votes last time, faces the Congress' Satpal Raizada.

Congress leader Anand Sharma stands from the Kangra seat.

2024 Lok Sabha Election: The End Game

Ultimately it will all come down to what the numbers say on June 4, counting day.

For either the BJP or the Congress to claim a majority, they must have 272 seats. 

The BJP is hugely confident it can cross this figure on its own, and given its performance in recent central and state polls, this will not be a surprise. For the Congress to do so - given its haul of 44 in 2014 and 52 in 2019 - would be a mega shock. Both parties do have support from allies - the BJP from the National Democratic Alliance and the Congress from INDIA. 

Exit poll data will give a clearer picture but these will not be revealed till after voting ends.

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