|There are 714,000,000 registered voters in India [EPA]|
Who will be India’s next prime minister or kingmaker in coalition discussions? Al Jazeera profiles the main players.
|Singh is the Congress’ choice for PM [EPA]|
Prime minister since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s election victory in 2004, he is the party’s choice for that post this time too.
An Oxbridge economist and former academic and bureaucrat, Singh, 78, is considered the architect of India’s financial reforms since the 1990s.
Known for his mild-mannered leadership style, his political critics consider him just a proxy for Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress party.
Although he has never won a popular election (he is a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament), Singh enjoys widespread support because of his intellect, simplicity and reputation for honesty.
|Advani is the BJP’s candidate for PM [EPA]|
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, he was deputy prime minister in the party-led National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Behari Vajpayee between 1999 and 2004. He has been the leader of the opposition in parliament since then.
Considered a Hindu nationalist hardliner, the 81-year-old leader is trying to shed that image by talking about development, reaching out to younger voters and launching a blog.
He is credited with overseeing the rise of the BJP as a major political force and is reputed to be an efficient administrator.
|Gandhi’s influence over her party is big [AFP]|
The Italian-born president of the Congress party and widow of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister who was assassinated by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber during the 1991 general election campaign.
The current matriarch of the Nehru family, she initially stayed away from politics after Rajiv Gandhi’s death but stepped in to lead the party in 1998.
Elected to parliament the following year, she turned down the post of prime minister after taking her party to a surprise election victory in 2004.
Opposition’s attempts to discredit her because of her foreign origin seem to have failed, and her influence over the party and its government was never in doubt.
|Rahul Gandhi is the Congress’ young face [EPA]|
The son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and general secretary of the Congress party, he is most likely to step in once Manmohan Singh steps down as leader of the Congress-led coalition.
He has represented the Amethi constituency in parliament since 2004.
Like his parents, he initially refused to take up a leading position in the Congress, but is now considered an important leader who can hold together the party.
He is seen as the party’s main hope to attract the youth vote in a demographically young country.
Although he has been trying hard to connect with the poor in the nation’s vast hinterland, he is yet to prove himself in the rough world of Indian politics.
|Modi is becoming the BJP’s poster boy [EPA]|
The BJP’s poster boy and the chief minister of Gujarat state since 2001, he is a divisive figure.
Popular among BJP supporters, he has been criticised for failing to stem anti-Muslim violence in which more than 1,000 people were killed in 2002.
Re-elected to power after resigning from his post after the riots, he is credited with making Gujarat one of the most business-friendly and prosperous states in India.
He served as the BJP’s general secretary from 1998 to 2001.
|Mayawati could become the next PM [EPA]|
A leader to millions of India’s low-caste people or Dalits, she is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with the largest number of parliamentary seats.
She could become the next prime minister of India as leader of the so–called Third Front if both of the main coalitions fail to gain enough seats.
Her Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded dozens of upper-caste candidates in this election to broaden her support base.
This former school teacher’s pro-poor stance is in sharp contrast to her personal wealth and penchant for lavish birthday celebrations.
|Pawar has friends in all places [GALLO/GETTY]|
Leader of the Nationalist Congress Party based in Maharashtra, Pawar is a former chief minister of that state.
He broke ranks with the Congress party in 1999 in protest against Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. However, he joined the Congress-led coalition ahead of the 2004 polls and went on to become the minister for agriculture in the Manmohan Singh cabinet.
He has friends in rival political camps and being the head of the Indian cricket board gives him considerable influence in a country that loves the game.
|Mulayam Singh Yadav|
|Yadav is a likely kingmaker [EPA]|
Leader of the Samajwadi Party, he has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, three times and has been India’s defence minister.
As Uttar Pradesh has 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, he will have a considerable say in national politics if his party does well in the elections.
The lower castes and minorities are his support base and that puts him in direct competition with Mayawati, who has a similar base. They have
alternated in power in Uttar Pradesh since the mid-1990s.
Although not part of the current Congress-led government, he helped to prop it up from the outside when the Communists withdrew support in 2008.
|Jayalalitha’s support could be crucial [AP]|
The leader of AIADMK party, the opposition party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu of which she has been chief minister.
She is a potential kingmaker as she has now joined forces with the PMK party, a former regional ally of the Congress.
While she has shown support for the Third Front of regional and left-wing parties, she could back either of the two main coalitions if need be.
In 1998, she pulled out of the BJP-led government, forcing fresh polls.
A former film star, she entered politics in 1982 with the backing of former co-star and state chief minister, MG Ramachandran.
|Naidu backed the technology boom [EPA]|
The poster boy politician of India’s information technology boom, this former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh helped turn Hyderabad, the state’s capital, into a hub for outsourcing.
He is the president of the Telugu Desam Party founded by NT Rama Rao, a hugely popular film star who also happened to be his father-in-law.
He is accused of ignoring the rural poor in his haste to push through urban development.
Maoist rebels, powerful in some parts of his state, once came close to assassinating him while he was in office as chief minister.
Although his party has been a key BJP ally, it is fighting this election on its own.
Naidu will have a big role in national politics if his regional party does well in what is seen as a swing state.
|Nitish is credited for giving Bihar order [EPA]|
The chief minister of Bihar, he heads an alliance of the Janata Dal United party and the BJP in this eastern state.
The alliance, which came to power in 2005, ended 15 years of chaotic rule by Laloo Prasad Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and a key Congress ally.
Observers say he has brought some order to India’s most crime-ridden state, where kidnappings had almost become a cottage industry of sorts.
He has been a minister of transport and agriculture in the federal government.
|Chiranjeevi could swing votes his way [AFP]|
A star of nearly 150 films, he is the latest in the long tradition of film star-turned-politicians coming out of southern India.
The 53-year-old, who acts in Telugu language films, has launched a new party, Praja Rajyam, in Andhra Pradesh state.
It is still unclear whether he can work the same magic as NT Rama Rao did more than 25 years ago when he launched his Telugu Desam Party and within months engineered a landslide victory over a well-entrenched Congress.
Like Rao (NTR for his fans), Chiranjeevi is hugely popular and he launched his party as recently as August 2008.
Even if his party does not sweep the elections, it threatens to further divide the votes in a state hitherto split largely between the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party.
|Lalu Prasad Yadav|
|Lalu Yadav is the joker in the pack [EPA]|
Railway minister in the outgoing Congress-led federal government, he heads the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party.
Yadav, 62, served as chief minister of the eastern Bihar state from 1990 to 1997, on the strength of strong support from backward castes and Muslims, until he was forced to resign over corruption charges.
His critics in Bihar accuse him of neglecting administration, retarding economic progress and playing caste politics during his rule.
But Yadav’s earthy charm and ready wit have endeared him to Indian popular culture and the media.
|Patnaik is a sauve face in Indian politics [EPA]|
The chief minister of the eastern Orissa state since 2000 and leader of the Biju Janata Dal, he recently parted ways with the BJP over a seat-sharing dispute.
Patnaik also blamed the BJP for last year’s deadly anti-Christian riots in Orissa.
He is now being wooed by the left-leaning Third Front.
Patnaik, 63, whose sister Gita Mehta is a well-known author, joined politics in the 1990s after the death of his politician father.
Politics aside, Patnaik is known for his interest in the arts and is the author of several coffee-table books on India.
|Karunanidhi is a battle-hardened vetran [EPA]|
The chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state since 2006, a post he held off and on since 1969, Karunanidhi’s DMK is a crucial ally of the Congress party.
He began his career as a scriptwriter for Tamil films but cemented his political credentials through participation in the Dravidian movement and anti-Hindi protests.
While winning every election that he has fought during his 60-year political career, Karunanidhi, 85, has battled corruption charges and claims of backing the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s separatist Tamil rebels.
The rapid rise of his son MK Stalin through the DMK ranks has also fuelled dissent and nepotism accusations.