Indians voted on the last day of the mammoth Lok Sabha elections on Monday as challenger Narendra Modi sought a personal mandate in the holy city of Varanasi, crowning his campaign to rule the country with a mix of pro-business policies and Hindu nationalism.
Opinion polls almost unanimously predict Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as the largest party when votes are tallied on Friday to fill 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or House of the People. India's rupee surged and stocks set a record as investors bet Modi will usher in a stable government focused on reviving Asia's third-largest economy.
"My brothers in Varanasi, let us vote peacefully, we are all one," Modi said in a recorded address broadcast on Monday, appealing for calm after a heated campaign that was mostly peaceful but marred by several outbreaks of violence.
Exit polls to be released after 1830 (1300 GMT) when voting ends in the 41 parliamentary seats at stake on Monday may offer the clearest steer yet on the outcome of the five-week, 10-stage election, the world's largest-ever democratic exercise.
However, accurately polling India's diverse 815 million-strong electorate is notoriously difficult, and exit polls were dramatically wrong in the last two general elections, over-estimating the number of seats won by the BJP.
Modi is the first prime ministerial candidate to stand in Varanasi, a 3,000-year-old city built around the river Ganges where several religions mingle but that is best known for the Hindu belief that to die here allows souls to escape the cycle of reincarnation.
His choice of the city was widely seen as a bid to consolidate his credentials as part of the Hindu nationalist movement that sees India as primarily a Hindu country. Modi's critics see him as a hardliner even though he has campaigned mainly on his record of job creation and economic management.
The election was marred by massacres of Muslims in the remote state of Assam that political rivals tied to speeches by Modi calling for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to be expelled from India. The BJP has denied that the speeches were inflammatory.
On Monday, activists for the Communist Party in West Bengal state were injured by gunfire in clashes with a regional party during voting there, and crude bombs failed to explode after being thrown at a BJP candidate's Kolkata home, media reports said.
A triumph in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh state, would cap a gruelling,