Indian political kaleidoscope changes ahead of elections
India's political kaleidoscope is changing rapidly, making the outcome of a mammoth electoral battle only two months away impossible to predict.
For the first time, no party is even pretending it has the capability to win the April-May election to the 545-seat Lok Sabha on its own strength.
Both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which has ruled India since May 2004, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have become weak over the years.
Smaller parties have branched away in search of greener pastures. Friends are turning foes and once bitter enemies are shaking hands.
Political analysts are fairly sure that there will be another hung parliament and the biggest gainer will be Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which rules the country's most populous state.
Both the Congress and the BJP have plenty to worry.
The envious rainbow coalition Congress president Sonia Gandhi stitched ahead of 2004 has cracked. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of Jammu and Kashmir, MDMK of Tamil Nadu and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) have bid goodbye to the Congress.
Some other parties have not quit the Congress-led alliance but are unhappy.
However, PDP rival National Conference is now with the Congress in Kashmir. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal has joined hands with the Congress since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ditched the Communists, the Trinamool's sworn enemy.
With the Congress influence shrinking across the country, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) insists it wants a countrywide pre-poll alliance with the Congress, not just in Maharashtra.
And in what is seen as an ominous warning, NCP strongman and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said he is in touch with parties such as the AIADMK and the anti-Congress Telugu Desam Party (TDP).
The BJP is in no great shape either. Although it has finally emerged as a big player in the country's south by taking power in Karnataka, it would need plenty of support from smaller groups to make a mark in New Delhi. It has already roped in the Lok Dal and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).
Former party veteran Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is threatening to undercut its support base, worrying the BJP's prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani. Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh has also left the party.
In an earlier era, the main opposition party that the BJP is would have been the main beneficiary of anti-Congress sentiments. Now regional and smaller parties are denying the BJP the opportunity.
Confounding the scenario is the state of the Communists and their desperation for a "Third Front" so as to stay relevant in national politics.
Ever since it withdrew support to the Congress government in July over the India-US nuclear deal, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has rushed to embrace Mayawati and the AIADMK's Jayalalitha.
But after showing initial enthusiasm, Mayawati has become cold towards the Left. And Jayalalitha is now openly courting the Congress in a bid to wean it away from the DMK, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu.
The Congress' ties with the Samajwadi Party, which helped it to retain power in July, are strained. So, after lampooning the CPI-M earlier, it is trying to mend fences with the Left along with the Rasjhtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Prasad.
And knowing that even 40 seats of the Left could prove a clincher, the Congress has stopped attacking the Communists.
Political analyst GVL Narasimha Rao told IANS: "The chance of any pre-poll alliances as they appear today getting a majority in parliament looks unlikely. This is primarily because no party seems to have a pan-India coalition and a pan-Indian presence."
So how hazy is the picture? Rao answered: "There is always some amount of volatility in the electoral field. What may appear somewhat hazy may change in the coming weeks as parties pick up momentum. As of now, nobody has the momentum. That is what happened in 2004."