Exit polls upset NDA
The ruling coalition is suddenly finding itself on the defensive as Oppn parties throw up various possibilities of alternative govt.
Only weeks ago, few doubted a walkover for India's ruling coalition in national elections. But in a remarkable turnaround uniquely Indian, a divided opposition is now talking of forming a coalition government.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which plunged into the elections with a distinct edge over its splintered rivals after its December state victories, suddenly finds itself on the defensive as opposition parties throw up various possibilities of alternative governments.
The BJP of course describes the exit poll predictions of a hung parliament as the culprit, but some party leaders admit they are crestfallen over the way things have shaped up after beginning with such buoyant prospects.
"The exit polls have encouraged these small parties to think of power and have created a nightmarish picture -- that itself should make voters wake up and give us their mandate," BJP spokesman Prakash Javdekar said.
"If this is the trailer, then god help this country," he remarked, referring to the claims of the Congress party and so-called Third Front parties of forming a government.
BJP strategists say their own exit poll projects 322 seats for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) -- far more optimistic than voters' surveys by television channels that put the figure between a dismal 255 to 276. A party or alliance would need to win a simple majority of 272 - out of 543 contested seats in the Lok Sabha - to form a government.
The main opposition Congress, which began on a weak wicket when the staggered polling began April 20, suddenly considers itself a frontrunner for an alternative to Vajpayee's NDA coalition if the latter falls short of a majority.
Analysts say if the NDA wins less than 250 seats, the opposition parties may take a credible shot at power in New Delhi.
BJP general secretary Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is of course dismissive of all this speculation: "The opposition is walking around with a troupe of prime ministers! It is laughable."
Perhaps the opposition parties would have been much less aggressive, had the NDA performed as well as previously expected - again going by exit poll forecasts.
Though the BJP has made significant gains in the fourth leg of staggered polling ending Monday, the NDA is struggling to retain even its 1999 tally, something that would have been unthinkable just a month ago.
A BJP leader admitted its high-pitched "India Shining" campaign, that put a gloss on the government's achievements in the last five years, had backfired in rural and under-developed parts of the country.
"Vajpayee and stability is our main campaign now," said a leader who did not wish to be identified. However, the realisation has dawned belatedly even as prime ministerial ambitions are stirring in every party.
Though the Congress party is yet to announce its prime ministerial candidate - its Italy-born president Sonia Gandhi has the support of only a select few like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Laloo Yadav - it is convinced its turn has come after nearly a decade in the wilderness.
Congress spokesman S Jaipal Reddy says: "People of India have decisively rejected the NDA. A Congress-led secular government is now inevitable."
The party, which ruled India for almost four decades, appears willing not to insist on Sonia Gandhi's candidature as prime minister so as to lead a coalition. Former finance minister Manmohan Singh is a likely candidate in such a scenario.
But the Congress is also desperately trying to prevent the formation of a centre-left Third Front, which the leftists and smaller groups have started spouting as a viable proposition.
Regional leaders like Samajwadi Party chief and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav appear to be nursing fresh ambitions of ruling the country after two close calls.
Yadav is counting on the support of smaller parties as well as some BJP allies like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) who are expected to waver on their allegiances if the NDA fails to make the majority.
Another prime ministerial contender is Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, who has aligned himself with the Congress again after breaking walking out of the party in 1999 over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin.