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Shifting ties keep Indian race open

India’s bookmakers have Manmohan Singh, the ruling Congress party prime minister, riding home as the odds-on favourite for the post again when legislative election tallies are released on May 16.

L.K. Advani, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, trails with odds of five to one, Sharad Pawar, a Congress ally from Maharashtra, is at eight to one, while Kumari Mayawati, the fiery champion of the lower castes in Uttar Pradesh, is at 25 to one.

However, the betting on India’s next prime minister has become more complicated after the emergence at the weekend of a left-led alliance, the Third Front. The grouping, which includes the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and regional parties, hopes to take as many as 100 of the 543 seats up for grabs in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

The Third Front will contest the election against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP. If it gathers enough momentum it can either be kingmaker to either the BJP or the Congress bloc or even attract other coalition partners to govern alone.

Its potency will grow considerably if it manages to solidify tentative support from two of the most powerful women in Indian politics: J. Jayalalithaa, the shoe-loving actress-turned Tamil Nadu opposition leader, and Ms Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj party says it will campaign alone but may be willing to join the Third Front after the election.

Identifying a future premier among the shifting constellations of coalition partners is likely to keep punters and bookies guessing throughout the five-phase election starting on April 16.

Contenders for power

Manmohan Singh
Incumbent prime minister, appointed by Sonia Gandhi, Congress party president, and respected as an able technocrat. Viewed as the architect of India’s economic liberalisation programme in the 1990s. Has had difficulty pushing through reforms

LK Advani
Leader of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata party. He was previously the BJP’s deputy prime minister from 2002-04

Kumari Mayawati
Low caste leader, a potential ally for Congress, the BJP or the Third Front. She is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, head of the Bahujan Samaj party and is expected to be a power broker in negotiations after the elections

Sharad Pawar
President of the Nationalist Congress party, which split from Congress in 1999, and former chief minister of Maharashtra. Currently minister of agriculture. Previously served as chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India

Chandrababu Naidu
Previously the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he is credited with modernising Hyderabad by promoting the IT industry and admired for a businesslike approach. He is president of the Telegu Desam party

Nitish Kumar
Chief minister of Bihar, an important state in the upcoming elections. Leader of the Janata Dal and former minister of agriculture and railways

Mulayam Singh Yadav
A prominent politician and three-time chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Founder of the Samajwadi party, currently aligned with Congress

Beside the candidates of the two main national parties, 76-year-old Mr Singh and 82-year-old Mr Advani, plenty of others hope that election arithmetic and dizzying coalition politics over the coming weeks will land them the top job.

Mr Singh is a politically neutral, scholarly figure who likes to remind his audience that education was the key to his rise from a dusty village in Punjab. A well-respected technocrat, he is credited for the economic liberalisation reforms in the 1990s. But his critics say that Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, is the power behind the throne vetting all his decisions.

Mr Advani, meanwhile, was born in Karachi before the partition of India at the end of British rule. Viewed as less liberal than his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he has a younger generation of BJP leaders at his back. Some of these might prefer the BJPs failure in this election to hasten the party’s renewal. Others fancied as prime ministerial contenders are: Mr Pawar, the astute leader of the Nationalist Congress Party; Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar and an able administrator; and the inscrutable, self-regarding Ms Mayawati.

“The [election] winner has to get over 200 seats. Anyone with 20 seats [to contribute] can think of himself as a prime minister,” says one political lobbyist. “This is a very difficult election to predict. There’s the impact of recession, of job cuts, the middle-class vote and what happened in Mumbai,” he said, referring to the November terror attacks.

If Congress defies India’s traditional anti-incumbency voting tendencies and claims 200 seats, it might be emboldened to make a generational switch to Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Equally, if it fares badly, it will be forced to make concessions to woo coalition allies, potentially offering the premiership.

“If the leftists and other potential allies such as Maharashtra-based NCP agree to support a Congress-led coalition, they might not accept Singh as prime minister because of the severe fall-out between Singh and Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the CPI-M, over the US-India nuclear deal. NCP leader Sharad Pawar has prime ministerial ambitions, so this coalition combination would have to agree on a consensus prime minister,” says Seema Desai, an analyst with the Eurasia group, a London-based political risk consultant.

The Congress party scoffed at the weekend at the challenge posed by the Third Front, calling it “a ghost.” Pranab Mukherjee, foreign minister, likened its confused identity to that of the Holy Roman Empire.

But erstwhile adversaries say the ruling party’s barbs equally apply to itself. Any future emperor is hostage to powerful princes.


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