NEW DELHI : Party workers sat on vigil outside locked strongrooms across the country on Wednesday night in a tense buildup to counting day that will decide the next Indian prime minister after six weeks of polling in the 17th general election.

Suspicions over electronic voting machines (EVMs) continued to swirl a day before Thursday’s counting, even as the nation prepared for one of three possible outcomes: a historic second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a surprise rally by opposition parties under Congress president Rahul Gandhi and a win by a federal third front.

Thursday will decide if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be able to make history by returning to power after a full term for a second consecutive term—a feat only ever achieved by the Congress.

The controversy over EVMs continued to dominate the political narrative on the eve of counting, with combative opposition parties flagging concerns about alleged tampering of the machines and the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) accusing the opposition of being sore losers. The opposition was inflamed by the insistence of the Election Commission (EC) that it will tally results with the voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) at the end of the counting process, rather than at the start as they had demanded.

Counting of votes will begin at 8am on Thursday for all the 542 constituencies that went to the polls in seven phases beginning 11 April. Polling in Vellore constituency of Tamil Nadu was cancelled after allegations of attempts to bribe voters.

This will be the first time that a VVPAT tally for polling booths will take place in a general election to check on results from EVMs. According to a report by news wire PTI, out of nearly 1.03 million polling stations, the VVPAT tallying will take place in 20,600. Each parliamentary constituency is made up of five or six assembly segments and EC will conduct VVPAT tallying at five polling booths in each of these segments.

EC said the exercise would add four-five hours to the counting.

The political stakes, meanwhile, are high. On one side, the NDA hopes to return to power on the basis of its flagship programmes, especially toilets for all under Swachh Bharat, subsidized cooking gas under Ujjwala, power supply under Saubhagya and a promise of housing for all. On the other side, opposition parties have tried to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership on allegations of corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal and through alliances between various regional and national parties.

“We are confident of NDA returning to power for a consecutive term and we want to start functioning at the earliest. The idea is to continue the good work started by the government in the last five years and continue to work for the people for the next five years," said a senior BJP leader. “We are sure that people have risen above caste and religion-based politics of opposition and instead voted for BJP-NDA for the development work and decisive leadership of PM."

Results of most exit polls released on Sunday gave a landslide victory to BJP and its allies. “We are not going too much into the predictions of the exit poll. Counting takes place on Thursday and we are confident that the Congress and other opposition parties will perform very well," a senior Congress leader said on condition of anonymity. “We have seen a good response to our announcement on farm loan waiver and minimum income guarantee scheme NYAY and we are hopeful of improving our tally."

“There is no logistical reason why the tallying of VVPAT is being kept for the end; why can’t a few steps be taken to improve the credibility of EVMs?" Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi told reporters. Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan responded, “When the opposition heads towards defeat, it starts complaining about EVM. "

The EVMs are kept in strongrooms guarded by central paramilitary forces. The strongrooms will be opened in front of members of political parties, district administration and election officers, who will then transfer them to counting centres.

The EC said it was “neither possible nor feasible" to agree to the opposition demand for tallying VVPATs first and cited a Supreme Court order. “There were some other procedural issues like allowing counting agents of candidates along with all Returning Officers and Assistant Returning Officers on which necessary instructions have already been reiterated and wherever required made more candidate-friendly," the EC said in its statement.

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