Three trends stand out amidst the clamour and clutter. No party or alliance is likely to be an unambiguous election winner. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had an early edge, but seems to be losing it. If the Congress wins 140-plus seats, the UPA should be able to form the government by drawing in other parties. However, despite the Star TV-AC Nielsen poll, it's not clear that the Congress will repeat or excel its 2004 score (145 seats).
Second, the National Democratic Alliance is in disarray. Not only has it shrunk to less than a third of its original size, its core organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is in poor shape. It's desperately using communal hate-speech to try to stem its decline, with uncertain results. The BJP's most important ally -- with the highest nationwide acceptance -- the Janata Dal-United, has dropped hints that it may quit the NDA soon after the Lok Sabha election.
Third, the non-Congress non-BJP Third Front has received a boost and eight parties have joined it. The front is drafting a common document which might help it exhibit a degree of coherence among its disparate component. But it still lacks a fulcrum or holding party which can lend it weight and an identity that makes it more attractive and durable than the short-lived V P Singh-led National Front of 1989 to 1990 or the United Front of 1996 to 1998.
The Left parties are the progenitor, midwife, nursemaid and mentor of the front, all rolled into one. But their parliamentary strength is likely to decline considerably in Kerala and West Bengal. It's hard to see the Third Front making a bid for power unless the Telugu Desam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam do exceptionally well (assuming that J Jayalalithaa stays on in the front), and the Bahujan Samaj Party wins 40 to 50 seats and joins the alliance. These are all big ifs.
Perhaps the most nauseating and retrograde recent development is Varun Gandhi's attack on Muslims during his speeches as the BJP's candidate in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh. This marks a new low in the history of hate-driven communal politics in India.
His repeated use of a super-derogatory term for Muslims, his attempt to set Hindus against them, his depiction of them as a threat to the nation, his fictitious charges about Muslims having raped Hindu women in the area, and his exhortation to forcibly sterilise them and 'cut them up' -- a throwback to his father's disgraceful role during the Emergency, constitute a violation of the electoral Model Code of Conduct, Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code and the Representation of the People Act. Such talk belongs to the discourse of fascism. It is profoundly anti-democratic, politically indecent and completely unacceptable.
This isn't the first time the BJP (or its communal sister-in-arms) has resorted to a viciously anti-Muslim appeal to win votes. The Election Commission has over the years disqualified as many as 3,423 people from contesting elections for 'corrupt electoral practices', many of them related to using communal appeals.
Two points are, however, noteworthy. Gandhi's case is one of those rare instances where a prospective candidate's speeches were videotaped; creating irrefutable evidence. Unlike in the Bal Thackeray case, where the speech was made in support of another person (candidate Ramesh Prabhu), this instance involves Gandhi's own act. His defence, that the CD was tampered with, is an outright lie, according to the Election Commission.
Secondly, and sadly, the EC has no powers to disqualify a candidate until after a court holds him/her guilty. This is a gaping hole in our law. Disqualification after a candidate has vitiated the climate, polarised opinion along communal lines, and harvested hatred for votes can only partially remedy the original offence.
The EC recommended a legal change in 1998, asking that where the offence is grave and a charge-sheet has been filed after due investigation, it should be empowered to disqualify the candidate. Ironically, last year, a parliamentary committee rejected the recommendation. Its members included luminaries like Ram Jethmalani and Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Some of the committee members now want Gandhi to be debarred!
The EC has confronted the BJP with a test of political honestly through its March 22 letter. If the BJP is sincere when it says it deplores Gandhi's speech and disassociates itself from it, it must withdraw him as its candidate. It cannot play the double game of exploiting rank communalism and formally distancing itself from it. The BJP will be guilty of despicable hypocrisy if it gives a ticket to Gandhi. If the BJP has any self-respect and a minimal sense of fair play, it must end this sordid game.
The BJP's alliance system is coming unstuck. It has foolishly antagonised the Janata Dal-United by fielding from Bihar two loud critics of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar: Shatrughan Sinha and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Kumar is consciously building bridges with Muslims, especially backward-caste Muslims and doesn't want Narendra Modi and other communally tainted BJP leaders to campaign for the NDA in Bihar. He has also refused to give a ticket to George Fernandes, the JD-U's most pro-BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader.
Internally, the BJP presents an ugly picture of disunity, with Arun Jaitley staging a revolt against party president Rajnath Singh, Modi acting tough on candidate selection in Gujarat, and L K Advani unable to assert his authority. The recent change in the RSS's top echelons can at best provide a minor boost to the BJP as it flounders for strategy, and substitutes Web-based gimmickry for political campaigning.
It would be a surprise if the BJP doesn't lose a number of seats in the states where it did remarkably well in 2004, but where its base has eroded: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It's doubtful if it can recoup these major losses through small likely gains in Gujarat, Jharkhand and Haryana.
The UPA isn't in an enviable state either. The Congress made a blunder by vetoing a national-level alliance and joint campaign -- assuming it would do well on its own. This has resulted in a huge mess in two crucial states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while complicating the party's relations with the Nationalist Congress Party.
In Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan offered a miserable three seats to the Congress. It retaliated by giving a ticket to Prasad's estranged brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav and announcing that it would field candidates in 37 out of 40 constituencies. In UP, Congress-Samajwadi Party relations have very nearly broken down.
Mulayam Singh, Prasad and Paswan have formed 'an alliance within an alliance' to act as a pressure group on the Congress. In Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi has quit the UPA and allied with the AIADMK. Although the UPA hasn't quite unravelled, these are definite setbacks for the Congress.
The Third Front too has a long way to go before it can project itself as a credible alternative and catch the public imagination. This won't be easy because all its constituents barring the Left stand tainted by their past association with the BJP-NDA, including the TDP, JD-S and AIADMK. The BSP is no exception. It has thrice shared power with the BJP in UP and campaigned for Modi in Gujarat.
A strong and convincing common programmatic document asserting the Front's commitment to secularism and an inclusive economic policy could help. But whether the Front can open up or turn the election around remains unclear.
Mayawati continues to be a bit of an unknown. She's certain to improve on her 2004 score of 16 in UP and win 30 to 35 seats. But elsewhere, barring Punjab, it seems to be peaking, according to an MDRA opinion survey. Its vote-share fell from 4.7 percent to 1.5 in Chhattisgarh between August and December last, from 12.2 to 5.4 in Delhi, and from 8.8 to 5.6 percent in Rajasthan. It rose marginally from 7.3 to 7.4 in MP and significantly from 1.2 to 8.3 percent in Punjab. Given these trends, the BSP is unlikely to win many seats outside UP.
Optimistically, a Third Front which wins 100 to 120 seats can attract NDA parties and form a government with the UPA's support. But even here, there are red lines. The Biju Janata Dal, Akali Dal, Asom Gana Parishad and probably the TDP will find it difficult to accept Congress support. Similarly, if the BSP joins the Front, the SP won't support it. It the Left is part of it, the Trinamool Congress will keep away. If the Rashtriya Janata Dal joins it, the JD-U won't.
There's only one certainty in this hazy and fluid scenario: Endemic instability and shifting alliances. How that resolves itself still remains unclear.