NEW DELHI -- Initial results yesterday in India's national elections showed the long-dominant Congress Party well ahead but not with enough strength to form a new government by itself.
"It's a hung Parliament we're headed for," Prannoy Roy, India's leading pollster, said late last night based on the first of two days of vote-counting.
When tabulation is completed today, Congress and several smaller, allied parties will end up with about 225 of the 511 parliamentary seats at stake, Mr. Roy predicted.
The Congress Party's main rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was headed for a total of about 115 seats, Mr. Roy estimated.
Such a result would set the stage for at least several days of complex bargaining among India's politicians as the Congress Party seeks to entice enough opponents to join a coalition to form a majority in the Parliament.
Potential coalition partners are likely to come from India's left-leaning or Communist parties rather than the BJP, but the shape of the final alliance remained highly unpredictable.
"Over the next few days, you're going to see dozens of possible combinations of people and parties floated in the Indian press," a New Delhli-based, Western diplomat said.
The quest for a stable coalition government is complicated by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi May 21, which has left uncertain who Congress itself will advance as its choice for India's prime minister.
Mr. Gandhi was attempting a political comeback after his Congress government lost its overwhelming parliamentary majority in 1989 amid allegations that political leaders received huge kickbacks on defense contracts.
Most analysts believe the two main contenders are P. VNarasimha Rao, 70, a longtime Congress Party leader and former foreign minister, who recently was picked as the party's interim head, and Sharad Pawar, 51, chief minister of the western state of Maharashtra, who has twice left the Congress Party only to return.
Mr. Rao, who lacks his own power base but has few enemies, is widely considered the compromise choice by top party insiders. As he did not run for Parliament in this election, he would have to run for a seat in a by-election to be held within six months of his assuming the prime minister's office.
The much more controversial Mr. Pawar has built a powerful, well-financed regional base from the state that includes the city of Bombay, where he recently faced allegations of corrupt dealings.
He is viewed as a strong proponent of economic liberalization and has the backing of many of India's industrialists. But he speaks a regional language, Marathi, and is not fluent in Hindi or English, the two main languages of national government and politics here.
India's last two governments, both headed by Congress Party opponents, fell after 13 and five months, respectively. And many analysts believe that the next one, though likely to be led by Congress, may not last a full, five-year term, setting the stage for another, off-schedule election.
"The Gandhi family had a certain authority that stopped factional infighting within the Congress Party," said Paul R. Brass, a visiting University of Washington political scientist, who specializes in Indian affairs. "There is no one with that kind of ability now."
The election results available as of 1 a.m. today showed that the Congress Party, which has led India for all but four of its 44 years of independence, did particularly poorly in northern India. But its candidates ran strong in the nation's south and west, particularly Mr. Pawar's state of Maharshtra.
The initial results also indicated that the BJP, though strong in some northern and urban areas, may not live up to earlier predictions that a rising wave of support would hand it more than 150 parliament seats.
With 220 of 511 contested seats declared, Congress had won 126, Bharatiya Janata won 57, and small parties took the rest, Indian television reported.
Partial and final results broadcast by the state-run television from 412 constituencies where counting indicated a trend showed Congress leading in 192 and its small-party allies leading in 11.
The Bharatiya Janata was ahead in 95, and the Janata Dal was ahead in 39. The Communist Party-Marxist was ahead in 28. Small parties and independents made up the balance.
The election, India's 10th since 1947, was the nation's lengthiest and most violent, with almost 300 deaths connected to the campaign and voting.
Scheduled to take place on three different days, the election was postponed one day after the first day of voting May 20, when Mr. Gandhi was murdered by a young woman who set off explosives strapped to her waist as she approached the former prime minister at a campaign stop in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.