A regional Indian party has claimed it will unseat Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in provincial elections in Uttar Pradesh state, the most crucial test for Modi before a general election in two years.
The Hindu nationalist BJP has maintained it will retain power in the bellwether state, which with more than 200 million people is India's most populous.
"We are going to form the government and our party is going to win a large number of seats," Akhilesh Yadav, the head of the secular Samajwadi or Socialist Party, told Reuters on the sidelines of a rally in Varanasi district, which is Modi's parliamentary constituency.
"We have the people's full support, which is very much visible," he said, as a crowd of about 10,000 people, many wearing the party's trademark red cap, chanted "Akhilesh, Akhilesh".
Opinion polls conducted before voting began in the seven-stage election last month had mostly predicted the BJP will return to power in Uttar Pradesh. However, such polls are not always accurate in India and exit polls can only be published after voting is concluded on Monday.
Counting in the Uttar Pradesh and four other state elections will begin on Thursday.
The results from the state elections, particularly Uttar Pradesh, will be a barometer of the popularity of Modi's BJP, which has been under fire for failing to deal with a wave of pandemic deaths last year and for a sluggish economy.
Also at stake is the future of current Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a robe-wearing Hindu monk who is seen as a possible successor to Modi.
A senior Samajwadi Party member, who did not want to be named, said Yadav's confidence of winning was based on surveys conducted by the party.
The BJP has said it will retain Uttar Pradesh because of policies like giving free staples to the poor during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as its popularity among the majority Hindus.
"Akhilesh Yadav is building a castle in the air," said BJP spokesperson Sameer Kumar Singh. "His claim of winning the election is baseless. People are again going to vote for the BJP."
Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the crowds the Samajwadi Party was drawing did not necessarily indicate it would win.
"There is a pro-incumbency (wave) in the state and one major reason behind that is the improved condition of law and order," he said. "People from every caste and religion want that."
But other analysts have said Samajwadi has put together a strong coalition of smaller groups that command a following in various parts of the state and among separate communities, something that the BJP itself did at the last state election in 2017 when it won 312 of the 403 seats.
Rajani Ranjan Jha, a retired professor of social sciences at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, said it was difficult to predict a winner because there was no apparent wave in favour of the BJP like at the last election.
"Akhilesh Yadav is definitely in a strong position because of a bit of anti-incumbency against the Yogi government and his strong performance in the western region of the state," he said.
One of the parties in Yadav's coalition is the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a farmers' party in western Uttar Pradesh. The party was among those in the year-long farmers' protest that forced Modi to repeal three farm reform laws in November, a rare climbdown by the combative leader that some analysts have said will affect his party's popularity.
"We are confident of winning because the people of the state have gone through a lot of suffering," RLD president Jayant Chaudhary told Reuters.