The curtains came down on the staggered Lok Sabha elections on Wednesday with millions of Indians voting peacefully in the fifth and last round covering 86 constituencies, and the first exit polls putting the Congress-led coalition on top of a fractured verdict.
Even as both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed they would finish as the number one, an India TV exit poll telecast after balloting ended said the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) could end up with 195-201 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha.
This tally could go up to 227-237 if the seats bagged by estranged allies such as Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party were to be included. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was tipped to bag 189-195 seats and the Third Front 113-121 seats, it said.
But political leaders and analysts kept their fingers tightly crossed, with the expected cliffhanger verdict forcing both the Congress and BJP -- the two main contenders for power -- desperately scouting for new allies. As the voting progressed, some parties switched loyalties, making it one of the most difficult electoral battles to predict.
"It seems to be a very complex political situation. It is the complexity that makes it difficult to make any predictions," Kerala-based political analyst NP Chekutty told IANS, reflecting an opinion widely held in the world's largest democracy.
Election officials estimated that some 55 per cent of the 714 million electorate - which is more than the combined population of Russia and the US - had voted over five phases starting April 16. The result will be known on Saturday.
Wednesday's polling was overwhelmingly peaceful but for the murder of a political worker in Tamil Nadu and clashes in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, two key states whose outcome will have a bearing on government formation in New Delhi.
The exercise involved all 39 seats of Tamil Nadu, all four seats of Himachal Pradesh and all five seats of Uttarakhand besides two in Jammu and Kashmir, nine in Punjab, 11 in West Bengal and 14 in Uttar Pradesh besides one each in Chandigarh and Pondicherry.
The most notable of the 1,432 candidates included Home Minister P Chidambaram of the Congress (Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu) and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee (South Kolkata).
Fearing uncertain times, Indian markets turned edgy on Wednesday, with a key index losing 138 points from its last closing figure at end of trade. The 30-scrip sensitive index of the Bombay Stock Exchange opened at 12,201.93 points and fell 138.38 points or 1.14 per cent from Tuesday's close.
"I'm fully confident that a BJP-led government will be formed at the centre. We will get new partners (after the polls)," BJP president Rajnath Singh said confidently. Within hours, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh asserted that his party would occupy the number one slot.
Not to be left behind, the Third Front - made up of the Communists and regional parties - announced they would meet in New Delhi Monday to decide the future course of action. The meeting would be attended by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is widely expected to win around 40 seats, said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and a key mover behind the Third Front.
With neither the UPA nor NDA expected to cross the magic figure of 272 in the Lok Sabha, the Congress and BJP tried to outsmart one another in order to woo leaders of smaller and regional parties.
AIADMK chief and former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha, a key Third Front partner, said in Chennai: "There are feelers from many places. I am not responding to them now. Everything depends on the results. If the results are as expected, then I will go to Delhi."
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who in 2004 pulled off a coup by most unexpectedly worsting the BJP-led alliance in general elections, Wednesday telephoned estranged ally Ram Vilas Paswan after a fire in his house which adjoins her own in the heart of New Delhi.
Elections to the 15th Lok Sabha got off to a violent start April 16 leaving 19 people dead in coordinated attacks by Maoist guerrillas during the first round of balloting. The rest of the polling days were, however, largely peaceful.