India's month-long staggered general election begins Thursday, pitting the ruling Congress Party-led coalition against the opposition alliance, headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Several regional parties are also in the fray and are likely to play a strong role in deciding who will head the next government in the world's largest democracy.
Voting begins Thursday
Thursday's voting will be largely concentrated in eastern and northern India, including some of the country's poorest and least-developed areas.
The vote marks the first stage of an election that is being held in five stages, ending on May 13.
The two principal political alliances - the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party - have campaigned on promises of uplifting the economic condition of poor people, who form the bulk of the country's 714 million voters.
Who are main candidates?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, is the man who will head the government, if the Congress Party is successful.
"I came to office with the promise to wipe every tear from every farmers eye," Singh said. "I sincerely believe we have worked hard to do that. We will not rest till we see every farmer, every worker, every young man and woman have renewed faith in their future and a secure livelihood."
Prime Minister Singh's main opponent is 81-year-old Lal Krishna Advani - the Bharatiya Janata Party's choice for prime minister, if it wins.
But the BJP, which lost power in 2004, has been hampered by divisions in its ranks, and accusations that it has stoked tensions between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Political analysts say the party is unlikely to emerge a frontrunner. But Advani feels differently.
"I think I am optimistic," Advani said.
A key role will be played by regional parties, several of which have come together to form a loose alliance, called the "Third Front". Many of these parties have grown on caste and linguistic lines in the diverse country. Local issues dominate their poll agenda. These parties are expected to garner a fair share of the vote.
Analysts expect fragmented vote, weak coalition
Most political analysts expect a weak coalition to emerge, because the vote is expected to be more fragmented than in previous elections. As a result, it could take days of deal-making before it is clear who will head India's next government
Many polls have tipped the Congress Party as the likely victor, but say its ability to form a government will depend on how much support it can garner from regional parties.
If neither of the two main alliances is able to cobble a government together, a leader from a smaller party may make a bid for power.
Difficult to predict outcome
Delhi University Professor and political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says it is difficult to predict the final outcome.
"The BJP does not seem to be in the race, barring the unforeseen," Rangarajan said. "Congress is in the race because it is slightly better placed. We are all expecting a coalition in which regional parties, smaller parties have a larger say. Or we cannot rule out some sort of a third front."
The voting is held in stages because of the enormous logistics of arranging polling booths and adequate security for the world's largest democratic exercise. More than 800,000 polling stations will be set up, guarded by two-million security personnel who will be rotated through the country. Votes will be counted, May 16.