As India heads for national elections next month, a group of regional parties has forged an alliance to challenge the two main parties which have dominated the political landscape -- the Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha reports how small, regional parties are becoming increasingly influential in India's fragmented politics.
For more than a decade, neither of India's two main parties -- the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- have won a majority in parliament on their own. They have relied on the support of smaller parties to cobble together coalition governments.
As India prepares for national elections next month, both the Congress Party -- which heads the governing coalition -- and the opposition BJP have been furiously wooing these parties, which dominate different regions of India.
But nine influential, left-leaning and regional parties have refused to throw their weight behind either of the two major political alliances, this time. Instead, they have come together to launch their own political alliance, called the "Third Front", which they say will compete, on its own.
Left-leaning parties have played a key role in the formation of this alliance. A senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitarram Yechury, says the Third Front will provide an alternative to the two main national coalitions, which he says have failed to fulfill the aspirations of the masses.
"At no time since independence has there been such a growing divide between the super rich and the ordinary people of our country. It is the policies pursued by the Congress-led government which has heightened this divide."
The bid for power by the clutch of smaller and regional parties comes as their political influence grows steadily in India. They govern many of India's large and populous states. In the last parliament, both the Congress Party and the BJP together bagged slightly more than half the seats. The rest were occupied by smaller parties.
Political analysts say these parties have mushroomed, as neither of the two main parties has managed to extend its appeal throughout a diverse country of more than a billion people and dozens of ethnic groups.
Professor of History at Delhi University and political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says many of these parties represent communities or regions that have been on the periphery for decades. He says these parties feel the time is right for them to play a more-prominent role at the federal level.
"The reality is that there is room in India for a coalition of regional forces, which have more of a tilt toward the underclass, who have been left out of power, and toward the rural areas, which still lie way behind the urban…So they are actually reaching out to that space in the polity."
Political analysts say that the "Third Front" faces many hurdles in its ambition of forming a national government. It has no clear leader. Forming a common strategy to face the elections will not be easy. It could unravel easily, because of competing ambitions and differences between the various parties.
But the alliance has dreams of providing India's next prime minister. J. Jayalalitha, heads AIADMK, a regional party in the southern state, Tamil Nadu, which has joined the "Third Front." She says the issue of who will head the alliance will be settled later.
"There is nothing wrong in certain parties expressing their aspirations because someone has to aspire to be the prime minister. But, as to when the future prime minister will be selected and how this choice will take place, all that has to wait until the polls are over."
Two previous governments formed by smaller parties in the 1990s were short lived and failed to last out a full five-year term. Nonetheless, analyst Rangaajan says the emergence of the "Third Front" could be a serious factor in this election and that it may hold the balance of power after the polls.
"We have to see whether 2009 marks a new phase in the polity. 1989 India ended the phase of one-party rule. 1999, it entered the phase of stable coalition governments. Are we in 2009 going to see a different kind of coalition, built around a leadership from the underclass? That is where we are right now."
India's staggered election begins April 16th and will be held in five stages through the country, during nearly a month. A new government will be formed after vote counting takes place in mid-May.