The results of India's month-long election will be released tomorrow. The last phase of polling on 13 May recorded an estimated 62 percent turnout (turnout over all five phases was 60 percent, with an estimated 428 million people casting ballots). Exit polls now dominate the news. Most polls suggest that the Congress-led UPA coalition and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA coalition will run a close race, with the UPA ahead by a nose. It also appears that the Third Front (a coalition of Left and some regional parties) on its own is unlikely to rustle up the numbers to form the new government.
The comprehensive C-Voter poll suggested that a Congress-led alliance would win 193-205 seats, while the BJP-led alliace would win 181-193 seats. Any formation hoping to head up the new government needs to have locked down 272 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.
Thus the big parties will have to cast their nets wide for allies. How regional parties fare may hold the key to the next government. The states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh (where regional parties are strong) promise to decide the fate of India. In New Delhi, the scramble for allies (and the often secretive deal-making that entails) has already begun.
The possible game-changers are Jayalalitha of the Tamil nationalist AIADMK party in Tamil Nadu and the Dalit (formerly "untouchable") caste leader Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Were Jayalalitha's AIADMK party to edge its rival DMK party in Tamil Nadu, the Congress will likely dump the DMK and attempt to woo Jayalalitha. Her singular aim remains once more to become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Mayawati had openly declared her ambition to be Prime Minister, while not closing the doors on either of the two big parties. Analysts suspect she is more likely to lean towards the Congress than the BJP.
Meanwhile, the Congress has already contacted Amar Singh of the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh, its erstwhile ally Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and the former film actor Chiranjeevi of the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in Andhra Pradesh. Such parties maintain slim national profiles, but such is the importance of regional politics in shaping the next government that Indians will be watching their results very closely.
The BJP, on its end, is keen to net Chandrababu Naidu from Telegu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh along with Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress has also made overtures to the Left and the Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar in Bihar over the last few days. While the Left maintains its professed commitment to a non-Congress, non-BJP government, sources in the party say that it is much more intent on keeping the BJP out of power. Nitish Kumar did not respond to the Congress feeler and even shared a stage with key BJP leader Narendra Modi, despite having made a statement earlier that he would not do so.
In the event of a hung verdict, as seems inevitable, President Pratibha Patil's role will become crucial as she will have to select a party or formation to call upon to form the new government. Will she choose the "pre-poll" coalition that wins the greatest number of seats or will she wait for the emergence of a "post-poll" coalition that has cobbled together a wider base of seats with letters of support?
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