India’s ruling BJP, opposition Congress in tight race to win state elections-exit polls

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s main opposition Congress party is likely to win two of five state assembly elections while it is in close contest with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling nationalist party in two heartland states, TV exit polls showed on Thursday.

The state elections are seen as a big test of Modi’s chances of winning a third term in a national vote due by next May.

More than 160 million people – or about one-sixth of India’s total electorate – were eligible to vote in the regional polls, which were held in four legs ending on Thursday.

Votes in all five states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram – will be counted on Dec. 3 and the results are expected that same day.

Three of the five states in contention have witnessed a tough battle between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party. BJP has been in power in one of the states, Congress in two, and regional parties in the remaining two.

At least nine exit polls predicted Congress party’s victory in mineral-rich Chattisgarh and Telangana state. Some of them said BJP was set to defeat Congress in Rajasthan.

Poll predictions from Madhya Pradesh state showed mixed results. A regional party was set to win again in the northeastern state of Mizoram, according to two exit polls.

Exit polls are conducted by various private organisations to predict election outcomes but critics say they tend to be inaccurate in India, partly because of the size and complexity of the electorate in the world’s most populous nation.

Politicians and analysts also note that state elections do not always influence the outcome of the general elections or indicate national voter mood.

A survey conducted in August by the India Today media group said Modi’s popularity remains intact after a decade in power, with 52% of respondents saying he is best suited to keep the top post for a third time.

(Reporting by Rupam Jain; Editing by Gareth Jones)