NEW DELHI - India's legion of political parties positioned themselves to form new alliances Thursday as preliminary exit polls from the national election indicated that no party won anything close to a majority in parliament.
An unwieldy coalition of parties will almost certainly form the next government, which could usher in an era of compromise and tortured administration. The results of the month-long election will be announced Saturday.
Politicians are expected to be busy during the next several days negotiating alliances, making new friends and betraying old ones in exchange for plum ministries and other totems of power.
"New friendships, new groupings and new polarizations will emerge after May 16," said Chandrababu Naidu, president of a south Indian party that hopes to come to power in the state of Andhra Pradesh. "Do not get carried away by surveys or rumours that are being spread by political parties," he told supporters, according to the Times of India.
Naidu said he would travel to New Delhi to negotiate alliances once results are announced.
Media reports said the ruling coalition led by the Congress party held a slim lead over the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies. Congress has long been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
But exit polls in India are notoriously unreliable - nearly every poll was completely wrong in the last election - and experts cautioned that any predictions would be premature.
Local media speculated feverishly on the coalition calculus and reported a flurry of meetings among various party leaders Thursday, a day after the final phase of the polls closed. The NDTV television news called its coverage "The Alliance Bazaar."
The long, gruelling campaign season produced few central issues that resonated across this wildly diverse country of 1.2 billion people and 714 million eligible voters. Total voter turnout was approximately 60 per cent, the national election commission said, up slightly from 58 per cent in the last national vote in 2004.
India has been ruled by coalition governments for most of the last two decades, including the current coalition, led by the Congress party, which served a full five-year term.
In the country's fractious political scene, it is difficult - if not impossible - for a single party to win the 272 seats needed to form a government on its own.
"You are looking at a situation where neither the BJP nor the Congress party are going to have good enough numbers to be able to form a government with their pre-poll allies. So, obviously they have to fish around for post-poll allies," said Arati Jerath, a political analyst.
"You know you are looking at a much more unstable coalition. And, from what I am hearing, the political parties are actually prepared for a short-lived coalition and another election maybe in two years' time," she said.
The wild cards in the election may prove to be the Third Front, a rough alliance of Communist, regional and caste-based parties that have banded together in opposition of the major parties.
"We are confident that we will be in a position to form an alternative government," Communist Party of India leader D. Raja told reporters. "We will not support a Congress-led government ... and we will also not allow BJP to take advantage of any situation."
Raja said the negotiations would take time, but added: "It is expected that new forces will join us. But it is not the time to identify them."