Alliance bazaar on show

NEW DELHI: India’s main political parties went hunting for friends on Thurssday, armed with exit polls suggesting month-long elections had delivered another stalemate that only new allies could break.

As the world’s largest democracy breathed a collective sigh of relief that its marathon ballot had finally concluded without major incident, it quickly became clear that another huge task remained in building a viable government.

Half a dozen polls conducted by news channels all gave the ruling alliance led by the Congress party a slight edge over the main opposition bloc headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The predicted margin was between five and 20 seats, but neither grouping had anywhere near the 272 seats required to command a parliamentary majority.

Exit polls have proved wildly inaccurate in previous Indian elections but, until the Election Commission announces the official result on Saturday, they will lend Congress a slight psychological advantage in its coalition-building battle with the BJP.

By tradition, the party that wins the most seats has the right to try to form a government first. With both sides needing to find around 70 extra seats, the task is not only to find new allies among India’s myriad regional parties, but also to ensure that existing partners are not tempted away by promises of power.

“Past commitments, positions or loyalties count for very little,” said analyst Subhash Agarwal, of India Focus, a political risk publication.

Congress has been making overtures to its ex-communist allies and has also reportedly been in touch by telephone with the powerful chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who is supposed to be tied up with the BJP.

The cloak and dagger nature of some of the horse-trading was highlighted earlier this week when the head of the Janata Dal regional party, HD Kumaraswamy, drove to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s home with his face covered.

Until now, Kumaraswamy has insisted his loyalties lie with the only viable alternative to the two main blocs — a

so-called “Third Front” of regional parties.