NEW DELHI -- India on May 19 reached the final day of voting in its seven-phase general election. The election, which has spanned more than a month, will decide the fate of politicians hoping to play a crucial role in the next government.
Who are the key leaders? Which parties do they belong to? What promises have they made to woo the electorate of 900 million in a country of 1.3 billion?
Here is a brief profile of five prominent players in the national polls. Votes will be counted on May 23. So far in the game, several opinion polls are predicting that the ruling coalition will retain power, albeit with a reduced majority.
The star appeal of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 68, was what propelled his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to victory in 2014, winning 282 of the 543 seats contested and becoming the first party to clinch a majority since 1984. Though BJP had the numbers to form a government on its own, it remained in the pre-poll National Democratic Alliance which ruled the country for the next five years with Modi at the helm.
After assuming power, BJP continued its winning spree in regional polls until December last year when it suffered major losses to the main opposition Indian National Congress in three key states once considered its bastions. Farmers were dismayed by bulging loans they could not pay while other voters grew angry about rising unemployment.
But support for BJP has surged after a deadly terrorist attack in the Indian part of disputed Kashmir and the government's subsequent retaliatory airstrikes on militants in Pakistan in February.
With nationalist sentiments in India running high, Modi's popularity has surged significantly, eating into Congress support. A fiery and captivating orator, Modi has often referred to the airstrikes in his campaign speeches, assuring the countrymen that he is their chowkidar, or watchman, who will do his utmost to protect them.
BJP's election manifesto focuses on strengthening national security, the rural economy and infrastructure among other things, with Modi vowing to make India the number three economy in the world by 2030.
The 48-year-old Congress leader is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty that ruled the country for most part since independence from British rule in 1947. He entered politics in 2004 when he contested general elections from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The party later suffered its worst defeat in the 2014 elections winning just 44 seats. He was elected Congress president unopposed in December 2017, succeeding his mother Sonia Gandhi.
Gandhi, whose popularity fell following the February skirmish with Pakistan, is hoping to revive the fortunes of Congress in the elections, and continues to hammer Modi over problems in the agricultural sector, growth in joblessness and alleged corruption.
But disaffection with the current administration may not be enough to send Congress to victory. What he needs is regional partners that local voters can identify with, especially given as caste, religion and regional politics play a far greater role in Indian elections than other issues.
While he has tied up with local parties in some states, he failed to make headway in northern Uttar Pradesh, the most crucial state where 80 seats -- the biggest number -- are up for grabs. Congress had won just two seats in the state in the last elections.
In its manifesto, Congress promised to address growing unemployment and also pledged to give income support to the country's poorest families.
Akhilesh Yadav, 45, is president of the Samajwadi Party and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Yadav, who holds a master's degree in environmental engineering from the University of Sydney, Australia, entered Indian parliament in 2000. A dynamic leader, his party's traditional vote bank in a state of 200 million include Yadavs, a socially and economically disadvantaged class, and minority Muslims.
In the 2014 elections, his party won just five seats in Uttar Pradesh, against BJP's 71. Mindful of the fact that it would not be easy to take on the powerful BJP without allies, Yadav joined up with rival Bahujan Samaj Party which is popular among Dalits or lower caste Hindus, in a bid to grab more seats in the state.
With the two former rivals now together, the state -- which played a crucial role in installing BJP as leaders -- would not be a cakewalk for Modi's party. Analysts feel BJP could lose around least 30 seats in the state, which will impact the overall tally of the party as well as the ruling NDA.
The Samajwadi Party manifesto promises to deliver social and economic justice for the disadvantaged and to create 100,000 jobs annually.
The veteran Indian politician and former civil aviation minister is a candidate of Rashtriya Janata Dal, a party which is based in the eastern Bihar state where 40 constituencies are going to the polls.
The 71-year-old leader was previously elected to parliament several times from Janata Dal (United), which removed him in 2017 for alleged anti-party activities. Yadav was opposed to Janata Dal (United) forming a state government in Bihar with help from BJP.
Keen to disrupt Modi from coming to power again, Yadav joined hands with Rashtriya Janata Dal which is backing him from Madhepura in Bihar.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal manifesto promises to reserve jobs for those in the lower castes and to spend more on education and health care.
H. D. Deve Gowda
The 85-year-old politician is a former prime minister and leader of Janata Dal (Secular), which has a tie-up with Congress in southern Karnataka, a state accounting for 28 seats in the general election.
He became India's 11th prime minister after the 1996 general elections which threw up a fractured verdict and a coalition of excluding BJP and Congress parties formed the government.
Gowda's aim is to prevent the Modi government from coming to power again. With the help of former rival Congress, his Janata Dal (Secular) also succeeded in keeping BJP out of power in Karnataka despite Modi's party emerging as the single largest party in local polls there last year.
Gowda's son H.D. Kumaraswamy is the state's chief minister.
Janata Dal (Secular) policies include promoting secular values in the country as well as improving the welfare of the impoverished.