Opposition leader Narendra Modi was brimming with confidence on Monday as he lambasted the last budget India’s ailing government will present to parliament before May’s national elections.

Describing Monday’s proceedings as a “final act of misery after a decade of decay and policy paralysis” under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Bharatiya Janata party head showed all the self-assurance of a man who expects to wrest control of the world’s largest democracy in just a few months’ time.

But while polls suggest the centre-right BJP is almost certain to emerge as India’s largest party, Mr Modi may still not win enough seats to form a viable coalition government – a possibility for which India’s many and disparate smaller parties are now preparing with gusto.

Indeed, just as Mr Modi was laying into his opponents this week, a band of regional political leaders were meeting nearby in the capital New Delhi. A second group gathered in the eastern city of Kolkata. Their agenda: who will be India’s next prime minister if Mr Modi falls short?

The likely outcome under this scenario is for a so-called “third front” administration comprising a ragbag of smaller parties, supported by the remnants of the ruling Congress, after its probably calamitous defeat. Many analysts are reluctant to even contemplate this prospect, anxious that a fresh period of fractured government will delay much-needed structural reforms and undermine India’s faltering economic recovery.

“Business leaders have basically discounted the idea that Modi will not be prime minister, which is a mistake,” says Rajeeva Karandikar, one of India’s leading polling experts. “He still has to run a near-perfect campaign to win and a third front is a real possibility . . . I’d say a 20 per cent chance, but it could be as high as 40 per cent or more if he [Modi] stumbles.”

The largest gathering so far of potential third front power brokers took place earlier in February, bringing together 14 parties from India’s northern Hindu-dominated “cow belt” and its southern Dravidian heartland, along with a motley rump of Marxists and other leftwingers.

This disparate assembly had little in common ideologically, but it did represent a profound structural shift in the nature of Indian democracy. Here a once-dominant Congress party has seen support wither over the last generation, snatched away by smaller parties that draw support from regional, linguistic or caste identities.

India’s central government has been gradually weakened as a result, making it impossible for Congress or the BJP to rule on their own. It has also thrown up three fragile third front governments over the past two decades. Each lasted a couple of years at best, before collapsing amid political infighting, triggering fresh elections.

“There are only two possible outcomes in May,” says Narasimhan Ram, owner of the Hindu newspaper group. “Either the BJP get enough to form a coalition, probably with Modi as PM, or we have a third front. And then who is India’s leader? Really, it’s anyone’s guess.”

The 14-party get-together in February was especially notable for the appearance of a woman who may soon become India’s most important regional baron: Jayalalithaa, a one-time film actress turned notably cantankerous chief minister of the large southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Pollsters such as Mr Karandikar suggest that Jayalalithaa’s popularity with her 72m voters give her a good chance of emerging as the leader of India’s largest third party, behind the BJP and Congress, thus becoming a powerful player in post-election coalition negotiations.

But Jayalalithaa, known as “Amma”, or mother, in Tamil Nadu, has still greater ambitions. “Does Amma want to be prime minister in a third front? Of course! And it would be foolish not to take her seriously,” says one senior Tamil political figure who is broadly supportive of her and who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from a politician known as much for her vengefulness as her astute populist instincts.

The odds that Jayalalithaa, or indeed any one of a dozen or so other regional leaders, might emerge as the head of a third front now depends on India’s notably complex voting permutations. In US presidential elections, candidates must puzzle out how to win 270 electoral college votes. A similar task faces Mr Modi, who must secure enough of India’s 543 parliamentary seats to form his own coalition.

“What is that number he needs? Some say 180, 200, maybe 220. If he gets 230 he’ll be safe and no one can touch him,” says Cho Ramaswamy, a lawyer and journalist based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital, and a sometime adviser to Jayalalithaa.

Crossing this threshold will be far from easy. The BJP currently has just 116 seats. To ensure victory, Mr Modi must almost certainly surpass his party’s historic high of 182, set in 1999. And this means overcoming not just a fierce rearguard action from Congress, but outwitting a dozen or more regional opponents, too.

That task is further complicated by resignation last week of Arvind Kejriwal, anti-corruption crusader, who ended his brief tenure as chief minister in New Delhi to concentrate on running a national election campaign, which could easily erode BJP support in crucial urban areas.

“Politics in India is extraordinarily volatile and if you take all these factors together, almost anything could happen over the next few months,” says Mr Karandikar. “But Mr Modi’s election is very far from certain. People should take the idea of a third front seriously, for good or ill.”

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