Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Left), Congress President Rahul Gandhi (Right)
Campaigning in the bitterly fought marathon Lok Sabha elections spread over 38 days drew to a close on Friday as top leaders made a final push in the seventh and concluding phase for the remaining 59 seats that included Varanasi where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to retain the seat.
Modi wrapped up his campaign for a second consecutive term predicting the BJP's return to power with a bigger mandate at his first media event since he assumed charge in 2014 while Congress chief Rahul Gandhi indicated that opposition parties will get together to form the next government.
The high octane campaign marked by vitriolic attacks and counter-attacks by political leaders and use of derogatory language and objectionable remarks that forced the Election Commission to step in ended at 6 pm.
Polling will be held on Sunday in the seventh phase in all 13 seats in Punjab and an equal number of seats in Uttar Pradesh, nine in West Bengal, eight seats each in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, four in Himachal Pradesh, three in Jharkhand and the lone seat Chandigarh.
In a first, campaigning in West Bengal came to an end on Thursday, 20 hours before the scheduled time, on the orders of the Election Commission in the aftermath of violence between the BJP and the ruling TMC in Kolkata during BJP chief Amit Shah's roadshow.
After the close of voting the focus will shift to exit polls which is not always known to be correct.
Counting of votes in the world's largest exercise in democracy will be taken up on May 23.
"The election has been amazing (shandar). Elections were held in a positive spirit. A government with full majority will come back after remaining in power for five years. This is probably happening after a very long time. This is a big deal in itself." Modi said in his opening remarks at the press conference that he addressed with Shah. The BJP got 282 seats in 2014 and the tally of the party-led NDA was 337.
Modi, however, did not take any questions from journalists, citing party discipline, and diverted them to Shah after he made a surprise entry at the BJP party headquarters in the capital.
Shah, who gave a detailed report card of the campaigning as well as performance of the NDA government, endorsed Modi's assessment of the BJP returning to power with a comfortable majority.
?We will come back with a much bigger majority. We are confident that we will get more than 300 seats," a confident Shah said.
Rahul Gandhi said regional parties such as the SP, BSP and TDP will not support the BJP and indicated that opposition parties will get together to form the next government.
Gandhi said his party's strategy was to "systematically close down every door to stop Narendra Modi from escaping."
"We closed 90 per cent of the doors (for Modi), he closed 10 per cent for himself by abusing opponents," the Congress chief said.
He also mocked the prime minister for holding his first press conference just days before the end of polling.
The Modi-Shah event coincided with Gandhi's media interaction at the Congress party headquarters.
"Why did the prime minister not accept my challenge for a debate on the Rafale issue?" asked Gandhi.
The regional parties and the Congress are making a determined bid to keep the NDA out of power in the event of hung parliament and have begun informal parleys.
On the last day of the campaign, BSP president Mayawati termed the BSP-SP-RLD alliance a combine of ideas and said it will not sit silent till it uproots the Yogi Adityanath government from Uttar Pradesh and the Modi government from the Centre.
Modi and Shah spearheaded the BJP challenge and crisscrossed the country addressing scores of rallies.
The Nehru-Gandhi family made a vigorous push for votes with Rahul, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi leading the party challenge.
Sonia and Rahul are contesting from the family pocketborough in Rae Bareli and Amethi in UP where the Congress president is pitted against BJP's Smriti Irani. Rahul is also contesting from a second seat in Wayanad in Kerala.
On the last day of the campaign, Priyanka Gandhi dubbed Modi as an "actor" and said it would have been better if Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan was made the prime minister.
Modi whipped up nationalistic sentiments and repeatedly invoked the Balakot air strikes into his campaign speeches to woo voters and also launched an allout offensive against the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi's campaign plank was centred over his farm loan waiver promise and the alleged irregularities in the Rafale jet deal. He also accused Modi of practicing the culture of crony capitalism.
(With PTI inputs)