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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - If India's faceless bookmakers are any guide, the ruling Congress party will probably scrape through the current election with Manmohan Singh the firm favourite to retain the prime ministership.
Wednesday is the final day of a month-long election involving more than 700 million voters. But with no single party expected to win an outright majority, the election has become a game of securing the highest number of allies to boost parliamentary numbers.
Betting is illegal in India. But in a maze of back alleys in the old quarter of Delhi, bookies, between taking bets on all-time favourite cricket, are working the phones and taking bets on the next government ahead of the actual vote count on Saturday.
"There is no other business at the moment. People are either betting on cricket (Indian Premier League) or on who will form government," said a gold trader sitting on the floor of his tiny shop in front of a bank of phones.
Congress is favoured to take 140 seats in the 543-member parliament, the highest among all the parties, but still far short of the half-way mark of 272 required to rule. It is banking on regional allies and possible support from communists to shore up the numbers.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is expected to win 125-130 seats, but the odds are improving that they will win more.
Singh is the evens favourite to take the prime ministership, while BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani is considered a 3-1 chance to win the top job.
"There is no other candidate," said another trader who said he was in touch with people who were involved in the betting business.
But while the bookies put their money on Congress, Indian shares rose 4 percent on Tuesday on speculation that the BJP, seen as pro-business, had gained some ground in the final stages of the vote.
The BJP, some analysts have said, has been smarter at alliance building than the Congress which lost the support of the communists last year over a nuclear deal with the U.S. and failed to win new allies.
Traders said the betting was on a lower scale in this election compared with previous votes, mainly because it coincided with the Indian Premier League cricket games being played in South Africa every night.
"Cricket is the favourite. There is more money riding on it than anything else," said Prem Prakash Sharma, the general secretary of the Delhi Bullion and Jewellers Welfare Association.
He estimated that between gambling on cricket and the election, 60 percent of the trade in the gold market was down.
The million-dollar betting industry operates entirely by word-of-mouth, and based on trust. Tightly controlled, few in the business admit to it.
"The whole betting business is really like a big train. A few people get off, but there are far more coming in," he said.
(Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
(For a graphic of a Reuters' poll on the elections, click on