Political circles abound with speculations on next PM
The Opposition could unite around a new left-wing premier in a hung parliament if the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) alliance fails to secure a clear mandate in the country's marathon elections.
Political circles have stepped up speculation over the future of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after exit polls predicted that the NDA would lose ground to its rivals in parliament.
Results from the world's largest ballot are due on Thursday and analysts believe a leftist dark-horse could emerge to replace Vajpayee if the BJP-led coalition dips below 250 seats. It needs 272 seats to form a government.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi met on Tuesday with the leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to discuss a possible coalition to keep the BJP out of power.
The communists won 34 seats in the 1999 election, making them the third largest party in parliament after the BJP and Congress.
CPI-M leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet said the two parties would be ready to form an alliance, adding: "We will all work together. It will be a coalition government and not that of any party."
Vajpayee's alliance was defending 280 seats on a platform of booming economic growth, which analysts say failed to work in the vast rural areas where electricity and running water are still lacking.
A leftist-led alliance would likely enact far-reaching policy changes, as many of its members have little enthusiasm for the privatisation drive and the warming relationship with the United States championed by the BJP.
But with all exit polls still showing the BJP will remain the largest single party in parliament, any leftist-led coalition would require policy compromises to please constituencies with diverse views.
"Every small party would want to field its own prime minister but the winner in this situation is likely to be the one who has the least number of enemies," said analyst and pollster Yashwant Deshmukh.
"As on today -- and I stress as on today -- the leftists seem to have an edge as they are the most acceptable. They may emerge as a dark horse," he said.
The communists have supported two past governments but never formally joined a ruling coalition, meaning they have little baggage that would prevent them from fielding a publicly acceptable candidate.
Congress, by contrast, ruled India for 45 years, earning plenty of enemies along the way. Sonia Gandhi is seen by many as unpalatable because of her foreign origin.
One figure to emerge as a potential candidate is Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. Bhattacharya would need quickly to find and win a seat in parliament and find a new chief minister in West Bengal. Another possibility could be the CPI-M chief in the outgoing parliament, Somnath Chatterjee.
As state leader, Bhattacharya does not hold a seat in the Parliament but someone in his camp would likely vacate a seat to enable the chief minister to enter national politics.
Defence Minister George Fernandes, the only socialist in the BJP-led government, is seen by analysts as able to desert the BJP if he saw a chance of becoming prime minister.
Also in contention is Chandra Shekhar, 76, who was Prime Minister for six months from November 1990 and enjoys close ties with many opposition politicians.
A potential compromise premier is former defence minister Sharad Pawar, who broke with Congress in 1998 because he opposed having a foreign-born leader, and formed his own Nationalist Congress Party.
Congress, aware that Gandhi's Italian origin is a liability, has said it would determine a candidate for prime minister through consensus with other parties in a ruling coalition.
If Congress is in a position to lead a government but does not want Gandhi as prime minister, one option within the party is Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister launched India's economic reforms in 1991.