Defying exit poll predictions of a one-sided sweep by the ruling BJP, counting day in Haryana remained a close contest for hours on Thursday before ending in a hung verdict plonked in the hands of independent MLAs and a party that came in third place. With 40 seats, the BJP emerged as the largest party but fell six short of the halfway mark. The Congress won 31 seats, the Dushyant Chautala-led Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) 10, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and Haryana Lokhit Party one each. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which contested 46 seats, was decimated.
The split verdict triggered frenzied political activity. At least two independents - controversial MLA Gopal Kanda and Ranjeet Singh - boarded a flight to Delhi, promising their support for the BJP, party sources said.
The BJP's final tally came as a disappointment for a party that won all 10 parliamentary seats in the national elections earlier this year, and predicted that it will cross 75 seats this time in the assembly. Eight of 10 ministers from the party lost.
From the 58 per cent in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP's vote share dropped to about 36.5 per cent. However, the vote share was about 3 per cent more than what the party got in the 2014 assembly elections.
The Congress vote share gained nearly eight percentage points since 2014. For the main opposition party hit by infighting that sponsored a change in leadership just ahead of the elections held last Monday, the results came as a boost and placed victory within reach - if it manages to seal a deal with the JJP.
As counting trends indicated that no party would win enough seats in the 90-member house to form the government, senior Congress leader and former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda made an appeal for opposition forces to unite.
"This mandate is against the BJP. The JJP, INLD and others, including the independents, should join hands with the Congress to keep the BJP at bay," he told reporters in Rohtak.
Mr Hooda alleged the administration was putting pressure on the independents at the instance of the BJP and was not allowing them to move freely.
JJP leader Dushyant Chautala too appeared to lean away from the BJP saying, "This shows there was huge anti-incumbency against the (Manohar Lal) Khattar government."
But he remained non-committal on whom he will support.
"It is too early to say anything. We will first summon a meeting of our MLAs, decide who would be our leader in the House and then take it further," he said. However, he said, the people of Haryana want "change".
State Congress chief Kumari Selja said the people of Haryana have rejected the BJP and are ready to embrace "a new dawn of justice".
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah saw the outcome as a mandate for the BJP. "Haryana's victory is unprecedented. These days it's rare for the government to get re-elected after completing five years. Even its return as the largest party is an achievement," PM Modi said at the BJP office in Delhi.
In the 2014 assembly elections, the BJP formed the government on its own, winning 47 seats. The Congress had then won 17 seats, INLD 19, Shiromani Akali Dal one, Bahujan Samaj Party one and independents five.
The BJP strength in the House later rose to 48 after it won a by-election.
Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar retained his Karnal seat by a margin of 45,188 votes against his Congress rival Tarlochan Singh. But, apart from the eight ministers, state BJP chief Subhash Barala (Tohana) lost.
JJP leader Dushyant Chautala won by 47,452 votes over the sitting BJP MLA Prem Lata in Uchana Kalan. Prem Lata is the wife of former Union Minister Birender Singh, and has defeated him earlier.
BJP's Sonali Phogat, a sensation on the video sharing app TikTok, lost to senior Congress leader Kuldeep Bishnoi in Adampur.
The BJP failed to break the Congress stronghold - the Deswali or Jat dominated belt of the state comprising Rohtak, Jhajjar and Sonipat districts. It picked up just one seat there, Rai in Sonipat. The Congress won 11 seats in this belt.
The BJP held on to its Jind seat and did well in some pockets of southern Haryana and in Faridabad district.
Senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala lost to his BJP rival Leela Ram Gurjar by just 1,246 votes in Kaithal and Assembly Speaker Kanwar Pal defeated Akram Khan of the Congress by a margin of 16,373 votes in Jagadhri.
Most exit polls had predicted a comfortable victory for the BJP, which came to power for the first time on its own in Haryana in 2014.
(With inputs from PTI)