The first Indians cast their votes in the world's biggest election on Monday with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority.
Some 815 million people are registered to vote over the next five weeks as the election spreads out in stages from two small states near Myanmar to include northern Himalayan plateaus, western deserts and the tropical south, before ending in the densely-populated northern plains. Results are due on May 16.
Elderly women in saris and young men in jeans and polo shirts lined up outside a dilapidated sports centre before voting started on a cool morning in Debrugarh, a river town in the tea growing Assam, one of two states to vote on Monday.
"We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole scenario," said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35, lining up soon after voting started at 0700 (0130 GMT).
During high-octane campaigning at well attended rallies the length and breadth of India, Modi has been promising just that change - to jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allies are forecast to win the biggest chunk of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, but fall shy of a majority, according to a survey released this week by respected Indian pollsters CSDS. In such a situation, a coalition government led by the BJP is seen as the most likely outcome.
An efficient administrator, Modi is loved by big business in a country tangled in red tape. But he is tainted by accusations that he failed to stop or even encouraged anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister. At least 1,000 people died in the violence, most of them Muslims.
Modi has denied the charges and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him.
DEFEAT FOR CONGRESS
Surveys show a resounding defeat awaits the ruling Congress party, led by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, after the longest economic slowdown since the 1980s put the brakes on development and job creation in a country where half of the population is under 25 years of age.
India's remote northeast, a lush but underdeveloped border region of eight states home to just 27.4 million voters, is a