'No clear winner'

The ruling Congress alliance will form the next government, television news channels predicted on Saturday, based on early vote counts.

With counting under way in 480 seats, Congress-led alliance was leading in 221 seats, while the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies were ahead in in 149 seats.

But neither group is expected to get close to the 272 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, leaving the balance of power in the hands of a multitude of regional parties.

Speculation as to the eventual make-up of the government has thrown up countless permutations but most analysts agree that the most likely outcome is a patchwork coalition that will struggle to see out a full term.

Play for power

By tradition, the party winning the most seats has the first right to try to form a government.

But both Congress and the BJP are sure to make a play for power no matter which emerges as the largest single party on Saturday.

Their respective leaderships have been holding a series of strategy meetings over the past two days, with the Congress party looking to mend fences with their former communist allies and the BJP also identifying potential partners.

If the two main alliances fail to make a breakthrough, the path to power might open up for the Third Front, a loose coalition of communists and regional parties.

But such a coalition would suffer from the large number of disparate parties it would need to form a government.