New Delhi: Bihar's bitterly-contested staggered elections ended on Thursday evening, with exit polls sharply split on who would get to rule the state: the BJP-led alliance led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's Grand Alliance.
While three of the nine surveys at the end of five rounds of polling predicted a clear win for the Bharatiya Janata Party and another gave an upper hand to it, five exit polls forecast a narrow or clear majority in the 243-member house to the Grand Alliance.
Despite the exit poll suspense, leaders of both the BJP and the Grand Alliance -- the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) of Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Prasad -- claimed they were sure of victory.
"We are hopeful of getting a clear majority," said BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli. "Although the (exit polls) ranges are close, I won't arrive at any hasty assessment," he said, indicating cautious optimism in the BJP.
Former chief minister Lalu Prasad, however, insisted that the Grand Alliance, which also includes the Congress, was poised to win 190 seats.
"The entire backward community of Bihar has voted for us," he told the media in Patna. "We salute them for this."
None of the exit polls, however, gave either alliance such a huge victory as claimed by Lalu Prasad.
While Today's Chanakya gave 155 of the 243 seats to the BJP and its three allies, NewsX-CNX said the JD-U and its allies would get 135 seats. It forecast a mere 83 seats to the JD-U, the RJD and the Congress.
In contrast, NewsX said the BJP and its allies -- the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) -- would win only 95 seats.
Other exit polls predicted a close outcome.
Any party or combine would need 122 seats to secure a wafer thin majority in the 243-member assembly. The millions of votes polled in the five rounds of polling from October 12 -- about 60 percent of the 66.8 million electorate voted -- will be counted on Sunday.
An India Today-Cicero exit poll predicted a hung assembly, with the BJP-led alliance winning 120 seats to 117 by the Grand Alliance. It gave the BJP alliance 113-127 seats and the Grand Alliance 111-123 seats. Four to eight seats could go to other parties.
A Dainik Jagran exit poll said the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would get a majority with 130 seats as compared to 97 for the Grand Alliance.
The Times Now-CVoter survey gave 122 seats to the Grand Alliance and 111 to the NDA.
The ABP News gave the BJP and its allies 130 seats compared to 108 to the JD-U-RJD-Congress alliance.
News Nation also gave the JD-U and its allies an edge, with 120-124 seats, while the BJP and its allies could get 115-119 seats.
India TV-C Voter also predicted 111 seats to the BJP combine and 122 to the Grand Alliance.
Even before the exit polls were telecast, JD-U spokesman K.C. Tyagi told IANS in Patna that the Grand Alliance was confident of winning a "stupendous mandate".
Neither Modi or BJP president Amit Shah -- who micro-managed the Bihar election -- nor Nitish Kumar spoke to the media.
Earlier on Thursday, nearly 60 percent of the 1.55 crore electorate turned out to vote in the last of the 57 constituencies spread across seven districts: Kishangaj, Purnea, Araria, Katihar, Saharasa, Madhepura and Supaul.
Despite widespread apprehensions, the staggered election passed off peacefully, even in areas considered to be strongholds of Maoists who had called for an election boycott.
The voter enthusiasm was evident on Thursday too, with tens of thousands queuing up at polling booths even before they opened at 7 a.m. A total of 827 candidates were in the fray.
Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi's Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) contested from six constituencies, making its foray into Bihar.
Earlier on Thursday, the stock market dipped over a possible lack of clear mandate in Bihar.
The Bihar election is a big test for the BJP, whose winning streak since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was halted by the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi in February this year.