Millions of people have voted in the final phase of polling in India, bringing its month-long staggered general elections to a close.  Counting of votes will take place on Saturday.  The focus has turned to winning political allies as the two main contestants - the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party - are expected to fall well short of a parliamentary majority.   

The voting for 86 parliamentary constituencies stretched from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, and West Bengal state in the east.  These were among the last areas to choose representatives for the 543 parliamentary seats.

With the polling over, attention is turning to New Delhi, where the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are in a race to win as many allies as possible to their side.   

A splintered verdict is widely predicted.  Political analysts say the race is open, and days of hard political bargaining could follow the vote count on Saturday.  At the heart of this will be regional and local parties, which are expected to win a chunk of seats in parliament and  play a key role in deciding the shape of the next government. 

Many small parties are not disclosing which they will lean, saying they prefer to wait until the counting is done.  Like J. Jayalalitha, the leader of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.   

"I am not responding to any overtures as of now.  I prefer to wait until the 16th until I have the results in hand," said
J. Jayalalitha. "After that I will proceed to Delhi, I will sit for discussions with my allies, and then we will decide what will be our further step."

In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK and a rival regional party are pitted against each other.  The  support of the winner could be crucial for the party which forms a government in New Delhi.     

Attention is also focused on West Bengal, a stronghold of leftist parties.  These parties enabled the Congress party to form a government in 2004, but withdrew support last year because the government signed a nuclear deal with Washington.

This time, leftist parties have join hands with several regional parties to launch a "Third Front", which aspires to form a government excluding the two main parties.  

In Kashmir, the Baramulla region witnessed a significant election.  A separatist leader, Sajjad Lone, broke ranks with the main separatist alliance in the state, and contested elections for the first time since an insurgency erupted in the region.  Other separatist leaders have called for a boycott of the elections, but Lone says he wants to take Kashmir's cause to India's parliament.       

The polling was mostly peaceful, but sporadic clashes were reported from several states.

India's elections involve the mammoth task of organizing voting for over 700 million voters.  They are held in phases to ensure there are adequate staff and security forces for the polling.