While previous general elections in India have been fought over national issues, this time around coalition mathematics seems more important than campaigns over economic growth, terrorism or inflation.
|Indians are going to the polls in the world's largest democratic exercise [EPA]
With both the major national parties, the Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), being shunned by their regional allies across the country, the likelihood of a coalition of disparate parties coming to power after the April-May general elections looms large.
Not that India is new to coalitions. The Congress has ruled for most of the last five years through a stable coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). So did the BJP before that between 1999 and 2004 with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The worry is that a coalition without a strong Congress or BJP to lead and hold it together will not last the full five-year term. It happened in 1996 when 13 parties came together to rule and fell two years, and two prime ministers, later.
It was not always like this. The Congress, which led India's freedom struggle, won the absolute majority of votes for decades after independence in 1947 - somewhat akin to the African National Congress's hold over politics in post-apartheid South Africa.
But a gradual erosion of support for the Congress, beginning in the mid-1970s, saw mainly national opposition parties, including the BJP, make steady gains and come to power in the 1990s.
And now in 2009, it may be the turn of regional parties who have already tasted power in the states, to come together and rule the country.
This motley group is called the Third Front and they have positioned themselves as the alternative to the UPA and NDA.
For their detractors, the Third Front is just an umbrella that could be folded away for parties that are not with the main coalitions.
Politics in India, especially in the rural hinterland, is still substantially driven by identities of caste, sub-caste, and sub community within that.
The build-up to the election day is played out like a game of chess.
Each major party watches whom the others are nominating in each constituency like hawks and then try to break the numbers: by getting relatives from the opposition candidate's family to stand, prodding some independent candidates to step up, buying off others who could swing key blocks.
|The BSP's Mayawati aims to be the first lower caste prime minister [GALLO/GETTY]
With each move, the calculated aim is to splinter the electoral mathematics and nudge the needle to the barest minimum margin for victory.
And it is the mathematics that gives the Third Front confidence.
The Congress and the BJP won just over 50 per cent of the vote between them in the last election in 2004.
The Third Front reckons that any further fall in support for the two main parties would effectively give regional and caste-based parties the advantage.
It is as if the smaller parties have smelt blood and are eager to zero in on the kill.
Parties which were aligned with the major parties are either unwilling to have a pre-poll arrangement or have bickered with these two parties over seat-sharing arrangements - a clear sign that they would rather pick their partners after the election results are out on May 16.
The Third Front
The main players in the Third Front are the leftist parties, mainly the Communist Party Marxist, the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc.
Voting takes place in the 543 constituencies in five phases from April 16 to May 13. Results will be announced on May 16.
16 April: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadwep
Total constituencies: 124
22 April: Manipur
23 April: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Tripura, Utter Pradesh, Jharkhand
Total constituencies: 141
30 April: Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, Sikkim, Dadar and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu
Total constituencies: 107
7 May: Bihar, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi
Total constituencies: 85
13 May: Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Chandigarh, Pondicherry, Uttar Pradesh
Total constituencies: 86
The second-biggest partner is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati, the chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh. Her support for the front is conditional: if they win she wants to be India's first prime minister from the so-called lower castes.
Other partners include the regional Telugu Desam Party, the Telangana Rashrtiya Samiti, the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal.
Together, this rump coalition, which cuts across ideology, had 96 seats in the last Lok Sabha or the lower house of parliament.
They could emerge as a decisive force if the main coalitions fall reasonably short of the simple majority of 272 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha.
With the BJP being an anathema to most of them, the Third Front is likely to end up supporting a Congress-led government.
And if the Congress tally drops drastically, they would pitch for leading a government, supported by the Congress.
In the 2004 elections, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance's biggest support came from the leftist parties with 59 seats.
They supported the government from outside but withdrew support over the landmark civilian nuclear deal with the US in 2008.
So is India heading for a weaker, and perhaps short-lived, coalition government, with both major national parties struggling to keep up with the Third Front?
The main battle
The main national battle is still between the UPA and the NDA.
Many opinion polls show that the ruling UPA could beat the main opposition NDA, but may still fall short of a majority in parliament.
Only weeks ago, the Congress seemed to have a better chance of winning, with its coalition appearing intact and better-than-expected performances in state elections last year.
However, the party's dwindling base in former strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar states, is a major cause of worry for its leaders.
In many of these states, the party has been forced to play second fiddle to its allies, who are powerful there.
And seat-sharing arrangements for the Congress have broken down in Uttar Pradesh, accounting for 80 parliamentary seats, the biggest single source.
The birth of new regional parties has also threatened the party in swing states like Andhra Pradesh.
The UPA had the support of 263 MPs in the last parliament. Of this, 145 were Congress MPs.
The BJP had 138 seats, just seven seats short of the Congress.
However, its major allies in the NDA have either parted company or are seriously considering the option.
The chances of the NDA improving its tally hinges on the party improving its strength in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Bihar.
Smaller allies like the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), who have few seats between them, would hardly make a decisive difference even if their tally increased this time.
With Biju Janata Dal in Orissa having left it and no new alliances formed, the NDA appears to be in some trouble.
All these calculations are conventional wisdom. But does the Indian voter really want the Third Front option?
Investors and businesses worry that it could herald policy limbo just as the affects of the global economic recession are being felt in a still growing economy.
|A coalition of India's leftist parties may emerge as a decisive force [EPA]
While reforms to open up the financial sector may be put aside amid the credit crunch, they are looking for changes in India's rigid labour laws as well as moves to privatise public sector companies to help boost investments.
The fear is that a loose coalition will mean more squabbling over policy.
And the ordinary voter may still remember the political chaos unleashed by the Third Front during its short spell in power.
Many will be fervently hoping that the analysts get it wrong as in 2004.
In that election, the ruling BJP ran on the platform that declared India shining – the country had never had it so good.
While the rest of the world and the experts agreed, to the BJP's shock, India disagreed.
Also, a terror attack anytime before the end of polling may see the nation rallying behind either of the two main parties.
The truth is no one really knows what can happen. The Indian voter is shrewd and has always had a penchant for surprising the pundits.
Source: Al Jazeera