As the electoral race enters its final laps, both major political groupings are preparing for trading season. Deals will be struck, promises will be made, alliances will be broken and new coalitions will emerge.
Some trends that have been visible over the last few days:
The BJP continues to be hyper-confident. It believes that it has now crossed the UPA in numbers and is certain of forming the next government. This confidence is based on its own exit polls and some leaders are now so sure of the result that they are even discussing who will get which Cabinet post.
The Congress is less overly-confident. But it has its own exit polls, which suggest that it will do a little better than last time. It does not believe that the BJP will get more seats than the Congress.
Even so, the mood is cautious. As Priyanka Gandhi told Outlook, the result will be touch and go. Although, judging by his press conference on Tuesday, her brother is more confident.
The Left appears to be less hopeful of a Third Front government. It does not doubt that the Third Front parties will do well but it concedes that it is now almost certain that the Congress will refuse to back a Third Front government from the outside. And without Congress support, the Third Front simply does not have the numbers.
The emphasis now is on new alliances. While Left leaders retain their no-truck-with-the-Congress rhetoric, it is much more muted and privately many are now saying that the Left’s future course of action will depend on the results and that nothing is ruled out. In real terms, this means that the Congress is no longer an untouchable.
The Congress is hopeful of dividing Nitish Kumar and the BJP. There are some signs that Nitish is not averse to this development and he has been suitably enigmatic for a fortnight now. However, Nitish has also been shown the BJP’s exit polls, which predict an NDA victory. So his new strategy appears to be to praise L.K. Advani while still keeping his own door slightly ajar.
What does all this mean for Manmohan Singh? There is only one set of circumstances in which his political career could continue: if the UPA wins a majority.
If the Congress sits in the Opposition, Singh will slowly fade away. He will have achieved what he set out to do and will retire a content man.
The complication will really occur if no alliance wins a majority. At that stage, there will be two real possibilities. The first is that Sharad Pawar will put together a new coalition and ask either the Congress or BJP to support it from the outside. The Congress will say no but the BJP’s position is less clear-cut. Pawar is clear that Singh is not his party’s candidate for the prime ministership. It is as clear that Pawar wants the job for himself.
The second possibility is that the UPA re-engineers its coalition winning new allies and gaining the support of the Left from the outside. In such an eventuality, it is clear that Singh’s strongest supporters will be Rahul and Sonia Gandhi.
Unfortunately, they will be the only ones. No UPA ally or potential ally of consequence wants Singh as Prime Minister — not Pawar, not Lalu Yadav and certainly not the Left.
Two days ago, the Prime Minister suffered the final indignity. As is well known, the reason the UPA is in this mess is because Singh went ahead with the nuclear deal, which he knew would drive away the Left, only because he thought he had the support of the Samajwadi Party.
But now, even Amar Singh has dropped his pro-Manmohan rhetoric and said that it is very doubtful that he will be acceptable as prime minister.
So Singh has succeeded in alienating both the Left and the Samajwadi Party.
None of this is to write the Prime Minister off. As of now, either he or Advani are most likely to be sworn in after the election. But politics is the art of the possible. And new possibilities emerge by the hour.