Millions will start voting across India beginning on Thursday in staggered parliamentary elections that is expected to lead to a verdict more splintered than five years ago.
With no single issue dominating the five-phase elections that ends on May 13, political pundits say that a complex set of factors involving states and individuals will determine who finishes on top of a hung 545-member Lok Sabha, parliament's house of the people.
About 143 million of India's 714 million voters - of a population of 1.2 billion - will be eligible to exercise their franchise in the first round of polling to pick MPs in 124 Lok Sabha constituencies spread across 15 states and two union territories.
A total of 1,715 candidates are in the fray. Tens of thousands of security personnel and Election Commission staff will oversee the world's largest democratic exercise - the 15th since the first general election in 1952.
Also on Thursday, voters in parts of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh will vote to elect a new state assembly.
By the time campaigning for the first phase ended Tuesday evening, the desperation for votes had given way to acerbic exchanges involving even the usually soft-spoken Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as LK Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Two BJP candidates were also jailed for giving hate speeches - one in Uttar Pradesh and the other in Orissa.
The battle for India involves the ruling Congress and its allies in the fractured United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the BJP and its depleted National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and others ranging from the Communists to regional forces big and small, each party determined to prove its might.
Everyone agrees for the first time that there will be no clear winner, and that a hung parliament is bound to lead to fresh realignment of players.
"This is one of the most bitterly contested elections I can remember," a Congress strategist told IANS, adding on the condition of anonymity that he doubted if his own party could grab more than 150 seats.
Even if that were to happen, the tally would be about 120 short of a majority in the Lok Sabha necessary to stake claim to power.
Unlike in 2004, when a stunning Congress victory over the BJP influenced several parties including the Communists to prop up the former, that may not happen this time - at least easily.
Many Congress allies have branched away, weakening the alliance it headed for the past five years.
The BJP hopes to take advantage of the cracks in the Congress camp but it too has lost a key ally, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Orissa. Its image as a votary of Hindutva could hit its prospects of government formation unless it finishes as a numerically dominant numero uno.
The Communists and its regional allies claim their "Third Front" would play a crucial role post elections. And three disgruntled Congress allies -- Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Samajwadi Party - have come together for what is being dubbed the "Fourth Front", though they insist they remain part of the ruling UPA.
Then there is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. It is contesting almost all the Lok Sabha seats and it has the potential to throw up surprises.
Good governance and economic stability are the key issues dominating the minds of voters, who range from the poor and dispossessed of the far-flung villages and urban slums as well as the middle class that is becoming increasingly assertive and seeks from the elected a better quality of life and opportunities.
A political activist who has done extensive field surveys said that contrary to what was understood in urban India, caste equations would play a key role in deciding winners in rural and semi-urban constituencies.
No single party has won a majority in any Lok Sabha election since 1984. The Congress took power on its own in 1991 but without a majority. Since then only coalitions have ruled India.