A party championing India's lowest castes appeared set to head a coalition government after elections in Uttar Pradesh, early trends from the counting of votes showed on Friday.
They also indicated a setback for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country's main opposition party, which was hoping to gain seats and consolidate what some analysts said was a revival of its fortunes.
Congress, which is in power at the centre but has lost out to state-based parties in what was once a stronghold, also seemed unlikely to make gains despite a high profile campaign by Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent of India's most famous political family.
Although the election in the Hindi heartland state- home to 170 million people- was fought largely on local issues, its outcome is expected to help shape the political direction for Congress and BJP ahead of 10 state elections due next year and national polls in 2009.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which represents India's former "untouchables", was leading in 185 seats in the 403-member state legislature, nearly 20 seats short of a majority, TV channels said.
While the party, headed by a fiery teacher-turned-politician Mayawati, who uses only one name, is not expected to bridge the gap, it could form a coalition with the support of independent members or even Congress, analysts said.
This time, Mayawati sewed up an unlikely alliance with the Brahmins, those on top of the Hindu caste hierarchy, touting it as a coming together of economically marginalised classes rather than just a caste-based relationship.
The ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) was in second position, leading in 90-95 seats. The BJP was ahead in nearly 70 seats, lower than its tally of 88 in the outgoing assembly.
"Ultimately the people of Uttar Pradesh decided to wait on Mayawati," BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters. "But let me tell you I see great hope for the future in the coming battle of 2009."
Surveys and exit polls had predicted the BJP would win around 110 seats, firming up a revival of the party which suffered a shock defeat in national polls in 2004 and struggled for direction before winning two small states this year.
They had also forecast a hung legislature in a state where politics is fragmented by caste and religious loyalties, leading to a lack of development, corruption and high crime levels.
A BSP-Congress coalition in the state could help the latter in 2009, some analysts said.
"A section of the Congress also believes that a tie-up with the BSP in UP would pave the way for a national alliance in the next general election," Coomi Kapoor wrote in the Indian Express.