Wax seals and locks were removed from ballot boxes across India on Wednesday as officials began counting votes in an election that could unseat the governing party and step up India's nuclear program.
An exit poll indicated the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party would win the most seats in Parliament, topping the Congress Party, which has ruled India for all but four of its 48 years of independence.The poll, conducted Tuesday by the independent Center for the Study of Developing Societies, predicted the Congress Party would receive less than 30 percent of the vote, its lowest share in history.
Early official results in the first few constituencies confirmed that the Congress Party would lose many of the 235 seats it had won in 1991.
The BJP has promised to step up India's nuclear weapons program, take a tougher stance toward neighboring Pakistan, change the government's open-door policy to foreign investment and reduce special rights for India's minority Muslims.
But because of its perceived anti-Muslim bias, the Hindu party may have trouble finding the allies it would need to form a coalition government if it does not win an outright majority.
The election was held on three days - April 27, May 2 and Tuesday - and police guarded the ballot boxes in local government buildings.
Counting began Wednesday morning after Election Commission officials and politicians inspected the seals and locks. Full results are not expected until Friday.
Nine hours into the counting, state TV said partial results showed Congress losing 15 of 45 seats. Many were in its former stronghold in southern states and went to the National Front-Left Front, an alliance of socialist and communist groups.
Crowds gathered outside many counting stations where loudspeakers were installed to announce the latest figures every few hours.
The exit poll predicted the BJP and its allies would win 192 seats of the 545-seat lower house of parliament. That would be far more than the 142 predicted for the Congress Party. The poll gave the National Front-Left Front 134 seats. Small regional parties could win 67 seats, the exit poll said.
The exit poll of 17,200 people had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Because no party is expected to win an absolute majority, BJP and Congress are expected to seek coalition partners.