Election results from five Indian states are to be announced on Tuesday, with the fortunes of the Gandhi political dynasty and the national government riding on the outcome.
The most important polls took place in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and its most politically significant where 200 million people live amid some of the most entrenched poverty on the planet.
Rahul Gandhi, the next in line in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, has led campaigning there for the Congress party, which runs the federal government
The 41-year-old presumed "prime-minister-in-waiting" faces the biggest test yet of his credibility as he looks to improve on the dismal record of Congress locally that stretches back 22 years.
"His efforts will be well-rewarded," Congress spokeswoman Renuka Chowdary told reporters at the national headquarters in New Delhi on Monday. "The Congress is not going to be in any embarrassing position."
Success would energise his supporters and perhaps hasten his ascent to national leadership at a time when his mother Sonia, the president of the party, has been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness, rumoured to be cancer.
Failure would feed the doubters -- and there are many -- as well as interest in his sister Priyanka, whom some Gandhi loyalists still prefer.
"As the family has scripted it, this should be the age of Rahul," concluded Outlook, a weekly news magazine, in a front-page article headlined "What if he fails?"
The omens are already causing concern, with one exit poll published at the weekend indicating Congress was expected to increase its strength in the 403-seat state assembly from 22 to only about 50.
Amid a record high turn-out of 59.5 percent, the surveys also suggested that incumbent Chief Minister Mayawati, a colourful low-caste leader famed for her handbags and taste for expensive statues, may lose office.
The party set to gain most is the regional Samajwadi Party (SP), powered by another young prince from a famous political family. Akhilesh Yadav, son of SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, has emerged as a charismatic new force.
"We all know that exit polls have gone wrong in the past, and this will happen now again," Digvijay Singh, Congress party general secretary and a close aide to Rahul, said.
Congress is looking to either take or return to power in four other states, namely northwestern farming stronghold Punjab, the holiday playground of Goa, mountainous Uttarakhand and northeastern Manipur.
The results come at a crucial time for 79-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been assailed by critics for his hands-off leadership style and his management of corruption scandals.
What happens in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is seen as a pointer to national politics, with the next national elections due by 2014.
Many voters in the state expressed anger at the heavy-handed tactics of the central government during anti-corruption protests last August led by the elderly campaigner Anna Hazare.
Somu, the owner of a scruffy tea shop in the northern UP town of Sitapur, said the treatment of Hazare, who was briefly jailed, would make him think twice before voting Congress.
"They treated him badly and he was fighting a good cause," he told AFP last month, adding that locals had held demonstrations in sympathy with Hazare.
Rahul, who is an elected national lawmaker from UP, has pitched himself to the voting masses as a man who understands their everyday problems of corruption, unemployment and caste discrimination.
He says he wants to bring development and better governance to notoriously corrupt and economically deprived UP, which has a population larger than Brazil.
The elections in the five states were held in stages over the last five weeks, beginning on January 28 in Manipur and finishing at the weekend in UP and Goa.
Source: AFP South Asian Edition