Narendra Modi received a hero's welcome from thousands of orange-clad supporters as he launched his election campaign on Thursday in the religious city of Varanasi, a show of strength for the Hindu nationalist tipped to be prime minister.
India is halfway through the world's largest-ever election, in which 815 million people are eligible to vote over 10 stages. Modi will stand for the parliamentary seat of the Ganges river city of Varanasi on May 12, four days before results are due.
One of the world's oldest inhabited cities and a centre for Hindus who come to wash away their sins in the sacred river, Varanasi should give Modi an easy win.
But with a sizeable Muslim community and multiple Hindu castes, the city and surrounding region will test whether he can rise above divisions that have held back his party in the past.
In a nod to that challenge, and to blunt criticism that his politics favours only upper-caste Hindus, Modi made conciliatory comments towards other religions and took a lower-caste Ganges boatman with him to register as a candidate.
"I am getting the privilege to serve this place, my heart says I have not come here, mother Ganges has called me," said Modi, 63.
Waving from an open-topped truck under a scorching sun, Modi was greeted by supporters dancing on rooftops and flapping flags as his cavalcade inched its way to an office where he filed to run for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"The support he is getting is unprecedented, it will make history," said Pratik Gupta, a trader wearing a "Modi for PM" cap in the party's orange and a white cotton suit.
In the sixth phase of the election on Thursday elsewhere in India, just over 180 million people were registered to vote in polls pitting the pro-business Modi against the decade-old centre-left government and a spectrum of regional parties.
Opinion polls show a coalition led by Modi's BJP is likely to win enough of the 543 parliamentary seats to form the next government, but may need the support of other regional parties.
Modi's coalition is aiming to win half the seats on its own, but could be held back by those who blame him for religious strife in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, when more than 1,000 people died, most of them Muslims.
The Supreme Court found insufficient evidence to prosecute Modi, and he denies accusations he did not do enough to stop