NEW DELHI — Even before the final results from India's general election are declared, the country appears headed for a period of political instability with no party or group of parties able to claim a majority in the national parliament.
The Congress Party has suffered its worst defeat ever, losing nearly half of its previous 260 seats to the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the center-left National Front-Left-Front (NF-LF) alliance, and a number of smaller regional and caste-based parties.
This is only the third time since India won independence in 1947 that the Congress Party has lost a national election. On both previous occasions it was replaced by coalitions that collapsed well before completing their full five-year terms.
With no outright winner expected to emerge in the short term, Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma is likely to invite the BJP and its allies to form a government when the parliament reconvenes tomorrow.
Once the dominant force in Indian politics, the Congress Party looks as if it will now represent only three major states. Its traditional stronghold in northern India has been eroded by losses in Haryana and Punjab. And for the first time in history Congress has disappeared from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
The party's only consolation is that its rival, the BJP, is far from gaining the outright majority and national presence it had aimed for. The BJP will once again be confined to the Hindi-speaking heartland of north India and the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Although the NF-LF made gains in Karnataka and in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, its political clout is diluted by the fact that it represents little more than a loose alliance of centrist and leftist parties put together to contest this election.
Hoping to form a broad, secular alliance
The new government's survival will depend on whether the NF-LF alliance is able to bury its differences with Congress, either through a formal coalition or by getting the Congress Party's support on the floor of the lower house to defeat the BJP in a no-confidence vote.
While Congress's final strategy is still unclear, the party, which now holds the balance of power in a hung parliament, has realized that the only way to block the BJP is to support a broad alliance of secular parties.
To pave the way for talks on a possible power-sharing arrangement, the NF-LF has dropped its earlier insistence that Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao resign as leader of the Congress Party. The NF-LF, however, is expected to retain first option on nominating the next prime minister if it forms a government. The Communist chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, is considered its most likely consensus candidate.
One of India's most respected and experienced politicians, Mr. Basu has played a crucial role in bridging the differences between the anti-BJP parties in the last few days. The likelihood of him becoming India's first Communist head of a national government took a step forward Saturday when former Prime Minister V.P. Singh formally declared that he would not compete for the top post.
BJP steps up its courting
Alarmed by the prospect of being beaten at the finishing line by Congress and its allies - after leading throughout the election race - the BJP has stepped up its efforts to woo minor parties and Congress Party dissidents, who are yet to commit themselves to either political camp.
BJP power brokers have zeroed in on the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) and its coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The TMC-DMK alliance annihilated Congress in what was once the party's most important stronghold in south India, winning 37 out of the 39 seats.
But it will not be easy for the BJP to enlist the support of either partner in the alliance in its bid for power. TMC leaders are bitterly opposed to the prospect of the BJP forming a government, while the DMK is demanding that the BJP tone down some of its hard-line pro-Hindu policies before the DMK considers an alliance.
Despite the setbacks the BJP is experiencing in attracting supporters, the Hindu party is pressing ahead with its intention of forming a minority government under the leadership of its nominee for prime minister, Atul Behari Vajpayee. The party hopes that an eventual split in the Congress Party might give BJP an outright mandate to rule.
According to BJP spokesman Pramod Mahajan, the alternative would be another election that nobody wants.
"I don't see any problem in proving a majority because if we don't prove a majority on the floor of the lower house, nobody else will be able to ... and parliament will again be dissolved. I don't think this country can afford two general elections within the span of one month," Mr. Mahajan said.
Having gone from two seats in the national parliament in 1984 to nearly 200 in just 12 years, the BJP is clearly unwilling to let victory slip from its grasp. The party is hoping that bitter memories of the failure of loosely based national coalition governments in 1977-79 and 1989-91 will make the BJP and its allies appear to be a credible alternative.
Despite trying to present a more moderate face during the election campaign, the strong showing of the BJP is sure to alarm the country's religious minorities, particularly Muslims. In 1992, the party's supporters were held responsible for the destruction of a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya.
The next few days will tell if the tantalizing prospect of a share in power proves to be a strong enough incentive for Congress Party dissidents and other minor parties to bury their ideological differences and join the BJP in taking India into a new and uncertain era.