The possibility of an early general election is very much in the air as 2007 draws to a close. The reason is the steady deterioration in the ties between the Congress and the Left over the India-US nuclear deal. In view of the Left's stout resistance to the measure, it is difficult to see how the two can remain together for the rest of the Manmohan Singh government's term, which ends in 2009.
In all likelihood, therefore, an election will take place early next year. Yet, it is more than obvious that none of the parties wants a poll. That much was made clear to the Congress by some of its partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) during the UPA's talks with the Left on the N-deal.
Their disinclination persuaded Congress president Sonia Gandhi to virtually rule out an early election and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to say in a philosophical vein that failing to clinch the nuclear pact was not the end of life.
Since then, however, the scene seems to have changed. As the parliamentary debate on the issue showed, Congressmen and even some of its allies are now quite enthusiastic about an election.
Why the change? One explanation is the softening of the Left's stance in allowing the government to approach the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the subject. Another is the continuing disarray in the upper levels of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress' main opponent.
Considering that the Communists are facing fairly serious problems in their West Bengal stronghold, the Congress may have come to believe that an early poll may be worth it.
The BJP's travails began with its defeat in Uttar Pradesh, which wiped off its earlier successes in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Delhi. But that setback is not the only reason for its problems, which stem from its failure to resolve the leadership issue.
Although L.K. Advani is now projected as a prime ministerial candidate, it is not a little odd that a man who was unceremoniously deposed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from the post of the party president is now being put forward as a possible prime minister.
As Manmohan Singh, quoting newspaper reports, jokingly said that it was the fear of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi making a bid for the position that has made the BJP opt for the old charioteer of the Ram temple movement.
Yet, how Advani's hold on the party has slipped from the days of the temple agitation could be seen from the manner in which his attempt to steer a less belligerent line on the N-deal was shot down by two former central ministers, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
Even then, since Atal Bihari Vajpayee's ill-health has ruled him out for a more active role, Advani is likely to be the frontrunner if and when the elections are called -- probably to the dismay of party chief Rajnath Singh who had earlier wanted to be the 'bridegroom' leading the party's baraat (wedding procession) to New Delhi.
But it is doubtful whether Advani will have Vajpayee's ability to keep the fractious National Democratic Alliance (NDA) together. Only recently, one of the NDA's important members, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United, voiced displeasure at Modi's support for the "fake encounter" in which a Muslim accused was killed in cold blood by the Gujarat Police in a case now before the Supreme Court.
If the BJP appears unsteady on its feet, the Left is in no better shape. Its difficulties stem from the industrialization drive of Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee in West Bengal, which has created considerable resentment among farmers.
The resultant violence in Nandigram, where the cadres of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) forcibly "recaptured" the villages from where their supporters had earlier been evicted, has angered even a section of the Left intellectuals and some allies of the CPI-M in the Left Front.
There have been other incidents too in the state, such as the so-called ration riots over the alleged siphoning off of subsidized foodgrains by shop owners acting in collusion with local CPI-M politicians, which have dented the Left's image. In addition, the hurried departure of controversial Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, from Kolkata following violent demonstrations by a Muslim group has undermined the Left's claims as an upholder of secularism.
It is obvious, therefore, that the comrades are in no position to face the electorate with confidence either in West Bengal or in Kerala, where the two CPI-M stalwarts, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and party chief Pinaryi Vijayan, have long been at loggerheads.
Arguably, while the Communists have never been in a weaker position in the states, their reputation at the central level has taken a hit in view of CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat's uncompromising opposition to the N-deal on grounds that it will make India subservient to the US.
Even if this argument is believed, there will still be a suspicion that the Commissars are being too solicitous about China's predilections in this matter since it is known that Beijing (and Islamabad) are not too pleased about the growing strategic relations between India and the US. Such misgivings, among the middle class in particular, are unlikely to help the Communists at election time.
Not surprisingly, the Left's problems have made the so-called anti-Congress and anti-BJP Third Front, in which the comrades used to take a great deal of interest, something of a non-starter. Its constituents -- the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh, the Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh and the Indian National Lok Dal of Haryana - are, therefore, at a loose end. The fact that they are all out of power also hasn't helped.
Unlike these regional parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) startled everyone by securing a majority of its own in Uttar Pradesh under its combative leader, Mayawati. Her success was ascribed to the formation of a Dalit-Brahmin combination, which blazed a new trail by bringing together two apparently antagonistic castes in an electoral alliance. This novel arrangement was in sharp contrast to the largely single caste outfits like the Samajwadi Party or the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
But how successful she will be elsewhere has to be seen since the Brahmins elsewhere are not as numerically strong as in Uttar Pradesh. For instance, her recent rally in Mumbai was not a very large one. Besides, how long these arithmetical tricks of combining castes and promising reservations will help these parties with limited visions is open to question.
The Congress has an advantage in this context because it has a more sophisticated outlook with an approach to economic development that is more in tune with the present times.
It has also succeeded in breaking free of shackles of the past such as a preference for socialism and non-alignment. Instead, it is now committed to a market-oriented economy and closer ties with the US and Israel.
The N-deal is crucial in this respect for it will enable India to sit at the high table of the Big Five by securing recognition as a legitimate nuclear power. It may well prove to be the trump card for the party in the elections.