NEW DELHI - The ruling Congress-led coalition was slightly ahead of the opposition Hindu-nationalist alliance in India's general election, but both groups fell short of a parliamentary majority, early projections said on Wednesday.
Two exit polls showed both alliances would need new partners, renewing concerns that a shaky coalition government will emerge at a time when Asia's third largest economy is faced with a slowdown and instability in neighboring Pakistan.
A national projection by Headlines Today news channel also gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ruling Congress coalition a lead, but they did not give the basis of the forecast. More polls are expected late on Wednesday.
Exit polls have had a mixed record in the past, given the difficulties of assessing an electorate of 714 million people, or more than twice the population of the United States. The polls were way off the mark in the last 2004 general election.
A poll by C-Voter polling agency showed the center-left Congress-led alliance winning 189-201 seats with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance taking 183-195 seats of the 543 seats at stake. The poll was conducted for India TV and UTV Business.
To rule a party or a coalition requires the support of 272 lawmakers forcing the Congress and the BJP led by Lal Krishna Advani to launch a frantic hunt for new allies.
We are looking at political uncertainty and horse-trading, Amulya Ganguli, a New Delhi-based political commentator, said.
Indian shares fell 1.1 percent on Wednesday amid investor nervousness over the election outcome. Shares had rallied 4.1 percent in Tuesday's closing session on speculation the business-friendly BJP would form the next government.
Congress and the BJP are seen as taking broadly similar positions on Pakistan, with neither seen likely to give substantial ground until they are convinced Islamabad has dealt with the militants India blames for an attack on Mumbai last November.
Nor do either party have much room for maneuver on the economy, because a shaky coalition is seen as unlikely to carry key reforms including in the labor sector.
The actual count of votes is scheduled for Saturday and results from all the races to the 543-member lower house of parliament will be known that day.
The Third Front, a loose coalition of smaller parties spearheaded by the communists and which could hold the balance of power, could get 105 to 121 seats, the C-voter poll said.
It includes the caste-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) whose maverick leader Mayawati harbors prime ministerial ambitions. The poll projected BSP winning 24-30 seats which may be enough for her to leverage a key role in any government formation.
The election, projections showed, may have bruised the communists, leaving them with about 37 seats, down from more than 60 they won in 2004, weakening their ability to hold the balance of power in any new government.
The communists quit Singh's coalition last year to protest a nuclear deal with Washington.
Voting in nine states including the swing state of Tamil Nadu in the south ended on Wednesday, the final round of a process that began on April 16 to allow security forces to move across the sprawling country to supervise the vote.
The vote also included the state of Jammu and Kashmir where a former separatist and head of a faction of the regional People's Conference party, Sajjad Lone, has broken ranks to stand for election from Baramulla in the north of the state
Indian elections are notoriously hard to predict, but most polls had tipped Congress as the likely victor. Nonetheless, in the final stages of the vote, the pro-business BJP was seen as having gained late traction with some savvy alliance building.