The way the TV channels tell it, only two men are in the race to become the next prime minister of India. The general election will be a gladiatorial battle between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Nobody else stands a chance.
In recent weeks, however, this characterisation has begun to seem more and more flawed. It is fair to conclude that Narendra Modi will be BJP's prime ministerial candidate. But it is by no means certain that Rahul Gandhi wants to be prime minister. And the evidence suggests that neither man may make it to Race Course Road.
Nearly all of the polls published recently put the BJP ahead of the Congress, which has slumped to a spectacular low. The problem for the BJP is that most polls suggest that it is only 20 to 30 seats ahead. And even generous estimates usually conclude that it will win no more than 150-160 seats, over a hundred short of the halfway mark.
If the polls are right, then this figure is not enough. A party led by Modi will find it difficult to garner the allies it needs. The BJP's best hope in such a situation is to look for a less controversial candidate. The party is not short of well-qualified alternatives — Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and even Rajnath Singh. But will Modi allow any of these people, who are roughly from the same generation as him, to come to power? If Rajnath Singh becomes prime minister then it will be difficult to oust him from the leadership of the party even when a situation more favourable to Modi arises.
In these circumstances, would Modi be better off with an elderly figure who will be happy to build the coalition and spend a couple of years at Race Course Road before fading away? LK Advani supporters certainly think so. That is why many others in the BJP are also reluctant to write Advani off. He may not be the best option for the Modi camp. But he may well be the most convenient.
In the Congress, the situation is even more complicated. If the party gets around 20 to 30 seats less than Modi's BJP it stands a chance of cobbling together a 'secular' coalition and forming a minority government. But who would be the Congress's prime ministerial candidate?
When Rahul Gandhi first announced that his priority was not to be prime minister, his protestations were dismissed as insincere. But his behaviour over the last month suggests that he might have meant it. Even as the battle for the mandate enters a decisive phase, Rahul continues to keep a low profile, sticking only to party work. He has made few significant speeches or public appearances.
Could it be, Congressmen are now asking, that like his mother, he doesn't really want the job? And besides, even if a battered and shrunken Congress came to power at the head of a fractious coalition, would Rahul want to lead such a government? He has age on his side. So, isn't he better off waiting for a more substantial mandate?
In that case, who will be the Congress's choice? One possibility is that Manmohan Singh could return for a third term. But the prime minister does not seem keen to hang on and the party might also want the revitalising benefits of a new face. Several candidates would then be considered. P Chidambaram is Manmohan Singh's favourite. But despite Chidambaram's first-rate intellect and his record of competence, the party might opt for a non-technocratic prime minister after a decade of Manmohan Singh.
AK Antony is one choice but his religion might work against him. Sushilkumar Shinde has the advantage of being a Dalit but his health has not been good. All this suggests that the Congress may end up selecting somebody from outside this Cabinet. Meira Kumar, who is both a woman and a Dalit and has done a good job as Speaker, will rank as a strong candidate.
It is, of course, extremely possible that the Congress's allies will desert it and try and form a Third Front government. After all, some polls suggest that the Congress and BJP together will account for less than half the strength of the next Lok Sabha. The allies may take the stand they took in 1996 when they refused to accept a Congress prime minister and elected HD Deve Gowda as their leader. Having played the secular unity card, the Congress had no choice but to support the Third Front from the outside.
If that happens, it is anyone's guess who the prime minister could be: Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and nearly every other regional leader would certainly stake a claim.
But this time around, the Congress seems less willing to support a Third Front government. Sonia Gandhi's antipathy to such arrangements is well known. In 1999, when AB Vajpayee lost a confidence vote, Mulayam Singh Yadav refused to accept a Congress prime minister and proposed Jyoti Basu instead. Sonia Gandhi rejected the idea, stating publicly "We are not interested in any Third Front or Fourth Front", and opted for a fresh election. The signs are that this remains her position.
A Third Front government could also materialise if the BJP agreed to support it from the outside. It is not entirely inconceivable that Narendra Modi would back somebody like J Jayalalithaa as prime minister. But will the RSS go along with this? The only time the BJP has backed a Third Front-type government was in 1989 when it supported VP Singh. But that experiment ended acrimoniously and the scars and bitterness endure.
All this suggests that we need to look beyond just Rahul and Modi. Indian politics is in a state of flux and the possibilities are endless. Sadly, these possibilities are also depressing. India could well be poised for years of instability and chaos.
The views expressed by the author are personal