Two days before the Lok Sabha election results get known, the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Thursday stepped up efforts to woo smaller parties expected to play a key role in government formation in a badly fractured Parliament.
Setting aside the bitterness generated by weeks of election campaign, the Congress reached out to estranged partners Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) that fought elections as a three-member bloc in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
And despite professing allegiance to its ally the DMK in Tamil Nadu, another politically crucial state, the Congress made its first public move to appease AIADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa whose alliance is widely expected to win a majority of the region's 40 Lok Sabha seats.
And even as the Congress asserted it was confident of forming a new government with Manmohan Singh as the prime minister, it hinted for the first time that it was willing to do business with new "like-minded, progressive and secular parties".
At the other end of the fractious political spectrum, the BJP dismissed Wednesday's exit polls that put the Congress slightly ahead of it and said it was supremely confident of emerging as the single largest party in the 545-member Lok Sabha on the way to taking power after a five-year gap.
"After the 16th, (BJP leader L.K.) Advani will become the prime minister of India," BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad told the media, referring to Saturday when the millions of votes polled during the April-May Lok Sabha battle will be counted.
Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi spoke on similar lines: "The Congress will emerge as the single largest party. We are confident we will form the government."
Exit polls and projections by television channels Wednesday gave the Congress and the UPA an edge in a badly splintered verdict, with the BJP and its allies coming a close second. They also predicted that the Third Front, made up of the Communists and regional parties, would win around 100 crucial seats.
Realising that they and their pre-election alliances will not be able to notch up a majority in the Lok Sabha necessary to form a government, both the BJP and Congress were eyeing disparate partners of the Third Front.
One of them, K. Chandrashekhara Rao of the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS), stunned the Third Front by suddenly switching loyalty to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in an apparent sign of things to come.
BJP leaders did not say if they were in touch with anyone else but party sources indicated they would not mind doing business with Tamil Nadu's AIADMK and PMK as well as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh and the recently divorced Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Orissa.
The Congress is also in the race to embrace these parties.
But Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) general secretary Prakash Karat seemed confident that in the numbers game, the Left and the regional parties would be able to outsmart both the Congress and the BJP.
He reiterated Thursday that a non-Congress, non-BJP government was in the offing, putting the onus of installing a "secular" government on the Congress -- as a quid pro quo to the 2004-09 experiment when the Left had backed the Congress-led government.
"The BJP will not come to power. We will not create a situation that helps the BJP," CPI-M politburo member M.K. Pandhe told IANS.
While a section of the CPI-M is reportedly in favour of backing the Congress again, Karat prefers to sit in the opposition instead of shaking hands with the Congress. Karat's line is backed by two other smaller Left parties -- Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc.
In Thursday's developments, Congress president Sonia Gandhi telephoned RJD leader and Railway Minister Lalu Prasad -- for the first time in weeks -- and LJP chief and Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who she spoke to a day earlier after a fire at his house.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, seen as a possible prime minister in the event of a hung parliament, spoke to Sonia Gandhi in a bid to reiterate that he remained solidly with the UPA.
Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh telephoned Samajwadi Party's Amar Singh to apologise over the bitter comments he had made during the election campaign. And he also said that the Congress did not view any party other than the BJP and the Shiv Sena as "communal".
The BJP's core group met at the residence of Advani but details of the closed-door discussions were not available. Party leaders only reiterated that they were poised to form the new government.
Congress leaders are to meet later Thursday night with Sonia Gandhi. "We will take stock of where we have done well and chart out the future course once the results are out Saturday," said a party leader.