VARANASI, India - Voters headed to the polls Monday in the climax of India's marathon election, with frontrunner Narendra Modi seeking a crowning victory in the holy city of Varanasi for his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi is standing in the famed pilgrimage site on the banks of the river Ganges in the final phase of the world's biggest election, a contest which has been marred by religious divisions and a vitriolic campaign.
The 63-year-old, expected to become prime minister if the Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies secure a majority when results are announced on Friday, urged residents to turn out in record numbers.
Anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal from the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party is also standing and hoping to upset Modi, who has spent little time in the city as he campaigned across the country.
"I have voted for the about-to-be PM of India, Narendra Modi," 35-year-old Setupati Tripathi told AFP after casting his ballot in Varanasi.
"With him winning the Varanasi seat, I am also confident about the development of this millennia-old city as a tourist destination," he added.
The first voters filed into polling stations at 07:00 am (0130 GMT), with early queues indicating enthusiasm for the most high-profile contest of the five weeks of voting.
The election is rich in religious symbolism, with Modi's decision to stand here seen as reinforcing his Hindu nationalist credentials during a campaign when he has steered clear of the hardline rhetoric for which he was previously known.
The four-time chief minister of western Gujarat state has campaigned on a pledge of development, investment and jobs to revive the flagging economy after 10 years of leftist rule by the Congress party.
But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed to swiftly curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which left at least 1,000 people dead shortly after he came to power there.
Varanasi, a sacred city around 420 miles (680 kilometres) east of Delhi where Hindus are cremated on the river banks, counts a large Muslim population which would be expected to vote against Modi.
"The way things have been shaping up in the last three days, everybody is saying Modi is losing," Kejriwal, who has focused on a grassroots campaign, told reporters on Monday in Varanasi.
First exit polls expected
More than 66 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots on Monday in three electorally critical states in the final phase of the election, which began on April 7.
Counting takes place on Friday and results are expected on the same day.
Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence, over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years.
The BJP is forecast to win the most seats in the 543-member parliament, but it will likely fall short of an outright majority, meaning it will need to forge its own coalition with smaller and regional parties.
India's opinion polls have proved wrong in the past and can be unreliable given the size and remoteness of sections of the country, which has 814 million eligible voters, the biggest electorate in history.
The first exit polls - surveys of voters as they leave polling stations - are expected later Monday, once voting ends at 6:00 pm.
In a video message on Monday, Modi paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people who "stood out in the scorching sun for hours to give strenth to our democracy" during the election.
He also praised Varanasi for its "its peace, its goodwill and its unity." "Everyone is our own, we have to love our own and we have to walk forward with everyone," he said.
Rahul Gandhi, who has headed a lacklustre Congress campaign, has denied that his party is staring at almost certain defeat.
Modi, the son of a tea-stall owner who rose through the BJP ranks, has derided his opponent, the scion of the Gandhi dynasty which has produced three prime ministers, as a reluctant "shehzada" (prince).
Beleaguered Gandhi and other Congress leaders have hit back, accusing Modi of being dangerously divisive and prejudiced against the country's 150-million strong Muslim minority.
"I am confident that the voters will give a mandate to an inclusive, fair and unifying (Congress) government," Gandhi said in an interview to the Hindi-language Hindustan newspaper.
There are 41 seats up for grabs on Monday in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, and the neighbouring states of Bihar and West Bengal.