Recent opinion polls confirm what the non-political layman has been suspecting - that neither of the two main parties will be able to secure a majority on its own in parliament. Another bit of conventional wisdom which has been borne out by the surveys is that this time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will pull ahead of the Congress in the race to be the first party in the Lok Sabha.
What these generally anticipated outcomes indicate is that except for the fact of the BJP grabbing the top slot, nothing much has changed in the recent past. As a result, since 1989, coalitions remain the only means of forming a government at the centre.
The corollary to this outcome is that while the Congress has declined from a high of 415 Lok Sabha seats (out of 543) in 1984 to its present sorry position where it is expected to get between 119 or 131/139 seats (down from 206 in 2009), the BJP hasn't been able to raise its tally by much from the 116 it won in 2009. The opinion polls have put its total at between 131 and 156/164.
Two conclusions can be drawn from these figures. One is that the Congress has squandered the opportunity it received in the last two general elections, considering that it may fail to reach even its 2004 tally of 145 seats. It goes without saying, therefore, that it wasted the last 10 years by failing to consolidate its position.
Before coming to the reasons why it slipped, a look at the BJP's performance can be instructive. The BJP's slippage occurred in 2004 when it dropped from 182 to 138. Then, it fell further to 116 in 2009, persuading one of its supporters, Arun Shourie, to describe the party as a kati patang (severed kite) and a prominent member, Jaswant Singh, to call for taking a relook at the idea of Hindutva. But, now, it is not only back on the field but is prepared to surge ahead of its main rival.
Except for the fact that the BJP has run some of the state governments under it, viz. in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, fairly successfully, it hasn't done anything out of the ordinary to pip the Congress at the post. Instead, it faltered in Karnataka, thereby losing the state to the Congress, and failed to hold on to Bihar because of its rupture with the Janata Dal-United over Narendra Modi's elevation in the BJP hierarchy. Besides, its penchant for stalling parliament and opposing bills which it favoured when in power has exposed its cussed attitude.
With its plus and minus points, the BJP might have been expected to remain more or less where it was in 2009 instead of pushing well ahead of the Congress. But, if it is expected to do so, the reason is that the Congress has stumbled. And the explanation as to why the Congress lost its footing is that the party has failed to make the transition from Indira Gandhi's "socialism" of the 1970s to the desperate recourse to pro-market policies by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in 1991 because of a balance of payments crisis.
Between 2004 and 2008, the Manmohan Singh government has blamed the Left for its own failure to pursue the reforms. But, after the departure of the communists, it became clear that the real hindrance was from the unreconstructed "socialists" in the party, who have never been reconciled to the supposedly pro-rich reforms initiatives.
The BJP has evidently taken advantage of the Congress's dithering on reforms by projecting its business-friendly poster boy, Narendra Modi. But, as the predictions show, the ploy hasn't taken the party far presumably because the spectre of the 2002 Gujarat riots still haunts him.
Since the total number of seats of both the Congress and the BJP hardly add up to 300, it is the regional parties which are expected to have a field day. But, unlike in 2008-09, the Left isn't playing a major role in setting up a Third Front because of the presence of the Trinamool Congress in the group. As a result, there is talk of even a Fourth Front making an appearance.
Each of these two combines will comprise parties which are at loggerheads with one another. For instance, if Trinamool is in one formation, the communist parties will be in another. It will be the same with the DMK and AIADMK or the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
There are some parties, of course, which do not have mortal enemies, like the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam and the Janata Dal (United). But, in view of the virtual division of the regional parties into two distinct entities, the chances of any leader from among them striving to be prime minister - as the BSP's Mayawati did in 2009 - are dim.
This will be advantageous, therefore, for the Congress and the BJP, which will have to focus on wooing some of these parties to their respective parlours. In this game of playing the suitor, the BJP is likely to be hampered by Modi's image.
(03-08-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)