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March of India's big parties halted

IF INDIA had a televised pre-election debate for its prime ministerial aspirants, the organisers would have trouble deciding how many lecterns to put out.
At least 12 politicians have been touted as potential prime ministers, but others could yet materialise.
For more than a decade, India's two major parties — the Indian National Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — have been unable to combat the gradual fragmentation of Indian politics.
A clutch of smaller parties with local, caste-based and religious agendas are likely to win a large proportion of seats, denying either major party a mandate in next month's poll. A frenzied and unpredictable round of horse trading will probably determine the shape of the new government.
"This election will deliver a fractured mandate," says G. V. L. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst and BJP adviser.
While the 76-year-old incumbent, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the Congress party, and 81-year-old BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani are still considered front runners to lead any governing coalition, other contenders could emerge.
Vidhu Verma, a politics professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the uncertainty is a sign of the declining influence of Congress and the BJP. "Neither have much of a chance of winning a clear majority, so the regional parties might try to negotiate an alliance where they bargain for their leader to be prime minister," he said.
Heading the colourful field of alternative prime ministers is the controversial "untouchable" leader Kumari Mayawati. From the low caste or "dalit" community, Ms Mayawati is Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and has made no secret of her ambition for the top job.
Other contenders are drawn from strong regional parties. They include Sharad Pawar, currently the Agriculture Minister and chairman of India's peak cricket body, the BCCI; Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a former film star and chief minister of Tamil Nadu in southern India; H. D. Deve Gowda, who was prime minister in a short-lived coalition of left-wing and regional parties in the 1990s; and M. Chandrababu Naidu, a former chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Earlier this month an alliance called the "Third Front" was launched. It includes India's communists and a collection of regional parties, but is yet to sort out its leadership or develop a coherent platform.
At the last election in 2004, smaller parties won about 260 seats in India's 543-seat lower house — nearly double the tally of Congress.
Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader and matriarch of the Gandhi political dynasty, cobbled together a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance that has ruled for five years.
The alliance has unravelled in the lead-up to the election, but Congress hopes their partners will return after the poll.
Despite its crumbling alliances, Congress this week confirmed Dr Singh as its candidate for prime minister and attempted to win votes by promising cheap rice or wheat to the poor.
The BJP is also struggling to deliver a coherent political message as it tries to preserve its Hindu nationalist identity while presenting a moderate image.
In a curious twist, an outburst by Varun Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's nephew, has created trouble for the BJP. Varun Gandhi, who deserted Congress and is standing as a BJP candidate, is accused of making inflammatory anti-Muslim statements in a recent speech, undermining the party's efforts to tone down its Hindu nationalism.
Abhay Kumar Dubey, from Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the Varun Gandhi controversy will make it more difficult for the BJP to forge post-election alliances. "The whole situation is always in flux — that is the interesting thing about Indian elections. Nothing is fixed or predetermined."


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