By Manoj Kumar and Shyamantha Asokan
NEW DELHI, March 24 (Reuters) - Despite India's prohibitions on gambling, anyone keen to bet on who will be the next occupant of the prime minister's residence at 7, Race Course Road can call a closely guarded phone number, or find the right doorway in a city backstreet.
The world's largest democracy goes to the ballot box next month. Election results are typically hard to call, and formal opinion polls have a patchy record in gauging voter trends.
Though the country's illegal bookies use little more than intuition to set the odds, some election candidates check what the illicit betting market, known as the satta market, says about their chances when they are out on the campaign trail.
"I feel that it can be relied upon more than opinion polls," Lalji Tandon, an opposition lawmaker in the northern city of Lucknow, told Reuters. "The fluctuations in the satta market paint a better picture of the mood of voters."
Tandon belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi, the man seen most likely to win the premiership. Few people doubt that BJP will emerge as the single largest party in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, parliament's lower house.
But there are no certainties in an elections that boasts a diverse electorate of 815 million voters, with an array of regional parties muddying the contest between two main national parties.
UNDER THE COUNTER
"I prefer my opinion polls, not the ones that are in the newspaper and on television. You can't rely on them," said a smartly-dressed young gold trader who doubles as a bookie, speaking in his narrow and dimly-lit shop in Delhi's old quarter, where errand boys promptly serve tea and lemon water to every customer who enters.
The bookie, who declined to be named, sets his odds by canvassing public opinion himself. "I have a social network. I am asking everyone."
For all that networking, India's forbidden bookmakers know how to avoid close scrutiny, even after a report by accounting firm KPMG and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimated the illegal betting scene was worth 3 trillion rupees ($49 billion) in 2012.
Outside of horseracing - there is a track next to the prime minister's residence - most forms of gambling are illegal in India, although two of its 28 states have casino licenses. So bookies are careful with whom they do business, only taking bets from people vouched for by a trusted contact.
They often operate out of jewellery shops, which provide a useful front for a business involving transactions of large amounts of cash, with single bets running anywhere between 5,000 and 5 million Indian rupees ($80-$81,000).
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Punters are currently offered odds for Modi around 6-5 against, which would pay out 120 rupees for every 100 rupees ($1.64) if the Hindu nationalist wins.
The favorite appears to have the wind in his sails going into the ballot, which starts on April 7 and finishes in May. His odds have narrowed from around 8-5 against three months ago.
The ruling Congress party is badly handicapped. A series of corruption scandals and economic growth hitting a decade-low has left voters disenchanted.
And the signs are that Rahul Gandhi, the political heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who has been appointed to lead the Congress campaign, lacks charisma in the match-up against Modi, the son of a tea stall owner.
His odds are given at 2-1 against, having widened from 9-5 three months ago.
The smart money says the only question at stake is whether the BJP will capture enough seats to convince potential coalition partners to join a government led by Modi, whose Hindu nationalist ideology might make some wary of joining his side.
Shifting post-election alliances to form a coalition can cause an upset.
SEAT BY SEAT
The betting market gives odds of 6-5 against for the BJP and its allies winning 250 seats, 22 seats shy of a majority. Congress and its allies are expected to get around half of that tally. No party has won a parliamentary majority since 1984.
The satta market provides an alternative guide to voting trends during the campaign period as it give odds for individual parliamentary seats, whereas mainstream opinion polls only forecast national and state results.
"I know of many political leaders who keep watch on the satta for their constituencies during elections," said Tandon, who declined to say whether he himself kept track of the odds.
Pollsters may have a strict methodology for their surveys, but even groups that have a good record on predicting vote share struggle to convert those percentage figures into accurate forecasts for how many seats each party will win.
Their credibility suffered a fresh blow last month when a local news channel ran a sting operation alleging that some pollsters fiddled data in return for cash.
The bookies odds favoured a Congress win in the 2009 election but, like the polls, underestimated the winning margin, while the Congress alliance's win in 2004 came out of the blue. Most also failed to price in the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi party's surprise victory in Delhi's local elections in December.
Sanjay Kumar of CSDS, a respected Indian polling group with a strong track record of predicting vote share, scorned the idea that bookies were better.
"They don't employ any methodology - it is just whatever comes into their mind. They are just making a wild guess." ($1 = 61.2550 Indian Rupees) (Additional reporting by Sharat Pradhan in LUCKNOW; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Simon Cameron-Moore)