Crystal gazing at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has been intense ever since Mamata Banerjee withdrew from the United Progressive Alliance. Thanks to the leadership tussles in the BJP, and the party's inability to expand beyond its comfort zones, the guessing game on the shape of the next government has become complex. Even though the Congress has become aggressive in the last few weeks both on policy and political fronts, a weakened UPA's chances to return to power for a third term seem questionable.
The state of the two main alliances has stirred up thoughts of a third front. The CPI(M), however, is weary of trying to bring the non-Congress, non-BJP forces together, especially because the efforts of its general secretary Prakash Karat for a third front bombed in 2008. Now one of the smaller fragments of the shattered Janata Dal wants to bring the scattered parivar together. The Janata Dal (Secular) has authorised its president H.D. Deve Gowda to make an attempt on it. The parent Janata Dal ruled the country under Gowda and I.K. Gujral from 1996 to 1998.
A challenge is the regional satraps who have tasted autonomy. Whether it is Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh or Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar or Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, the local heavyweights are no longer interested in working under a national leader. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has made it more than clear that he does not report to Janata Dal (United) national president Sharad Yadav.
Also, pre-poll alliances do not make sense to these leaders, as none of them has any influence outside the state borders. Gowda's influence is confined to a few districts in southern Karnataka. Two other fragments are Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, which is part of the UPA, and Om Prakash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal. While Chautala's party is the main opposition in Haryana, Ajit Singh's influence is limited to a few districts in western Uttar Pradesh.
Despite the gloomy picture, Gowda is hopeful of repeating the 1996 miracle, when he and Lalu mainly contributed to the block of 45 MPs of the Janata Dal. But soon after his becoming the prime minister, heading a rainbow coalition supported by the Congress from outside, bickering in the Janata Dal fragmented the party further.
A pre-poll alliance of the third front looks impossible, as Lalu and Ajit Singh could tie up with the Congress. A confident Mulayam would like to go on his own, as his party has the advantage of being in power in Uttar Pradesh. While Patnaik tasted success even after ditching the BJP, Nitish is still tied to it.
Gowda's own preeminence will depend on how well his party performs in the Karnataka Assembly elections of 2013. Yet he is free to chase the dream of uniting the divided Janata parivar. Elections in India, after all, have produced many strange arrangements.