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Millions vote on final day of staggered Indian national elections

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NEW DELHI - Millions of Indian voters wrapped up the country's mammoth national election Monday, and exit polls indicated that Hindu nationalist opposition leader Narendra Modi was the front-runner for prime minister.

With 814 million eligible voters, India voted in phases over six weeks, with results expected Friday.

The main Hindu opposition Bharatiya Janata Party went into the election with strong momentum on promises of economic growth. Pre-election polls suggested there was deep dissatisfaction with the governing Congress party's 10 years in power.

Modi's chief rival for prime minister is Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old vice-president of the Congress party and the scion of the Gandhi family.

Exit polls released Monday by two television channels, TimesNow and Aaj Tak, both gave the BJP and its allies a large lead over the Congress party and its allies in the 543-member lower house of Parliament, known as the Lok Sabha.

Thousands lined up Monday to vote in the revered Hindu holy city of Varanasi, where Modi was seeking election. The temperature soared to 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit).

Modi was running in the district against Arvind Kejriwal, the chief of India's anti-corruption party, and Ajay Rai of the Congress party.

"We want to vote for a candidate who is accessible, someone we can go to when we have problems, someone who can come and help us when we are in need," said Sofia Shaheen, a school teacher.

Girija Shankar, a retired government officer, said he was looking for a clean government. "We should only support a person who can deliver this to us."

A clash erupted as voting began in West Bengal state, where Ajay Dasgupta, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) spokesman, accused governing Trinamool Congress workers of firing at his party supporters, wounding four of them, in a village northeast of Kolkata, the state capital. The Trinamool Congress party denied the charge.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center said 63 per cent of Indians prefer the BJP over the Congress party.

Indians turned out in large numbers to vote, with the Election Commission saying the turnout percentage over the six weeks in 502 parliamentary constituencies until May 8 was 66.27 per cent, up from 58.13 per cent in 2009 elections.

Elections in India are generally considered free and fair, with even the powerful often falling to defeat. But there are also challenges, with age-old traditions of caste loyalty, patriarchy and nepotism often influencing voting patterns.

This year's election was bitterly fought, and often marred by religious divisions and personal attacks.

The BJP's carefully crafted and well-financed campaign promised good governance at a time when the Congress party has been plagued by repeated scandals, and Rahul Gandhi has generally failed to inspire the public.

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