With voting now under way, opinion polls in India point to another divided parliament, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies within striking distance of a majority for the first time in India's history.
Despite a series of bombings around the country that have left scores dead, the multistage election that began Feb. 16 appears to be moving forward in an orderly way.
The return of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, in the form of Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has narrowed the BJP's lead and increased the chances that her Congress Party might form a ruling coalition, however disparate.
"It will be very difficult to predict what the outcome will be until have the final arithmetic before us," says political analyst and former newspaper editor Inder Malhotra. "If Congress can reach 150 seats, it has a good chance of forming a coalition government. But then it will have to have almost everybody in the United Front [coalition] going along with it, and there is the possibility that some parties in the front might defect to the BJP."
Gauging the impact of the so-called Sonia Factor is by far the most perplexing aspect of the vote. After seven years of political seclusion following her husband's assassination by a suicide bomber, Mrs. Gandhi announced Dec. 29 that she would actively campaign for the Congress Party. In the minds of Indians, she bears the mantle of the Nehru and Gandhi families whose members have ruled India for much of its history as an independent country. Her electoral blitzkrieg has attracted hundreds of thousands to rallies across India. She has rejuvenated the chronically weakened, scandal-tainted Congress Party, which looked as if it might never recover from its worst-ever election defeat in the 1996 election.
The Congress Party "has always needed someone who can keep the party together and prevent dissent," says D.L. Sheth at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "What Sonia Gandhi has done is to put some life into Congress, boost its morale, and give it some coherence."
Although the BJP concedes that Gandhi will swing some seats in her party's favor, the Hindu nationalists and their allies are confident they will win an outright majority.
The BJP leader, Atul Behari Vajpayee, is still the people's preferred choice for prime minister by a factor of 2-to-1 over Gandhi, according to most opinion polls.
The BJP says it is the only party that can give India a stable government. The Hindu-led party is calling for a strident economic nationalism and a hawkish posture on national defense.