Like the TV game show "Kaun Banega Crorepati?" the million dollar question in Indian politics today is who will be the next prime minister?
Although the Congress has stood by the present incumbent, Manmohan Singh, there is speculation that he may be asked to stand aside in case the party needs the Left's support to form a government.
In view of the Left's allergy to Singh because of his championing of the India-US nuclear deal, his party may be compelled to replace him with someone more acceptable to the comrades if the choice for the prime minister's position becomes the sticking point between the two sides.
Among the names that have been floated is that of Pranab Mukherjee, currently the minister for external affairs, and the virtual No. 2 in the pecking order, whose indispensability to the government was proved by the fact that he headed 100-odd groups of ministers to deal with contentious issues.
Although he held prolonged negotiations with the communists on the nuclear deal, the latter do not seem to regard him with the same hostility which they show towards Manmohan Singh, probably because Mukherjee is ideologically more flexible.
However, he is not the only Congressman who may wear the crown of thorns. The name of Power Minister SushilKumar Shinde has also been making the rounds, evidently because, as a Dalit, he will face no opposition from either inside the Congress or outside.
But how successfully he will be able to run what will undoubtedly be an unwieldy coalition is open to question because of his amiable nature. Mukherjee, on the other hand, with his encyclopaedic command over facts and figures and close acquaintance with official and diplomatic procedures, may be more suitable.
Curiously, the possibility of Sonia Gandhi ascending the throne has not been aired although she will be acceptable to both the Congress and the Left and also to many of the other allies, including Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who had left the Congress in 1999 (for the second time) in protest against the Congress's dynastic politics.
But, having turned down the offer of the crown in 2004 in response to her "inner voice", she is unlikely to accept it now if an offer is made. Besides, her foreign origin will continue to provide the Congress party's opponents with a propaganda point.
Since Rahul Gandhi has ruled out any chance of becoming prime minister himself because of his "inexperience", his name has not been seriously mentioned although it was proposed earlier by Arjun Singh and others. There is little doubt, however, that he will adorn the position later, though not in the immediate future. Hence the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) sobriquet of "night watchman" for Manmohan Singh for keeping the seat warm for Rahul.
Outside the Congress, it is the BJP's LK Advani who is the front-runner. Despite his age, the 81-year-old leader has proved to be remarkably fit and an indefatigable campaigner. Criss-crossing the country in executive jets, propeller-driven planes and helicopters, the veteran of many battles has shown that he retains all the enthusiasm for the big fight.
Advani does not have any disadvantage of the kind which Manmohan Singh faces because of the Left's determined opposition. Instead, Advani has across-the-board support from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including the Shiv Sena of the extended saffron family, which no longer roots for Pawar.
Of late, however, Gujarat strongman Narendra Modi's name has been proposed as Advani's successor, leading the Congress to describe the latter as a "night watchman".
From the non-Congress, non-BJP camp, Pawar has been receiving the support of several members of the Third Front, such as Jayalalitha and Naveen Patnaik, although the NCP leader himself has recently returned to the United Progressive Alliance after a brief dalliance with Patnaik. His assessment that the front may not get more than 70 seats perhaps helped him to make up his mind to remain where he has been for the last five years.
The Third Front, however, has a prime ministerial aspirant in Mayawati although she is only tangentially associated with it. Apart from hosting the group's first dinner, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister has kept her distance from it and even set up candidates of her own party against those of the front's other constituents.
Her wish to be prime minister, however, predates the formation of the front. Her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was most vocal about it in July 2008, when the Left withdrew its support to the Manmohan Singh government on the issue of the nuclear deal and voted with the BJP against it in parliament.
Expecting the government to fall, Mayawati had advanced her claim to succeed Manmohan Singh, presumably with the Left's and the BJP's help. But, although her plans fell through, there is little doubt about her single-minded focus on fulfilling her ambition.
Although she is still young enough as a politician to have another shot at the goal if her present attempts fail, this cannot be said of the octogenarian Advani, who has also made no secret of the fact that he dearly wishes to be prime minister.
What is strange about these declared aims is that this is a new feature of Indian politics. Earlier, such open expressions of the desire were generally avoided, apparently because it seemed rather immodest to be so forthright about what is essentially a private wish.
Another reason why few boasted about their innate desire was that the names of the possible candidates were already known. For instance, in 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was expected by the BJP to continue in the prime minister's post if the party won while Sonia Gandhi was the Congress's obvious choice.
Before that in the mid-1990s, people like HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral became prime ministers through backroom negotiations while the candidate who was barred by his party from holding the post - Jyoti Basu - never said a word on the subject himself. It was only much later that he described as a "historic blunder" the decision of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to keep him away from the fray. Even that comment was more political in nature than about his personal self.
If, in contrast, the claimants for the post are now dime a dozen, the reason is that there are no big names in the running, like Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi earlier. Even Manmohan Singh, as he has admitted, was an "accidental prime minister".
It is not unlikely for another accident of this nature after the elections.