In Indira Gandhi, India last had a woman prime minister three decades ago. India's fragmented polity of today places one of two women, J. Jayalalithaa or Mayawati (who goes by a single name), in pole position to become premier after next year's federal elections.
Much attention is currently on Narendra Modi, the just-annointed prime ministerial candidate of India's principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Disillusionment with the ruling Congress is widespread. Its leadership too seems resigned to not regaining power. All it wants to do is thwart Modi from winning.
The Indian parliament's electable chamber has 545 seats, and because of the country's incredible diversity of language, religion, caste, and ethnicity, no single party has won an outright majority since just after Indira Gandhi's death. Either the Congress or the BJP usually win roughly between 150 and 200 seats and then cobble together a coalition. In rare instances, one of the two main parties has propped up a smaller player to lead the government.
The euphoria of Modi's supporters is unbound. They are already presuming that he has become prime minister. But the BJP will need to cross 200 seats to make a realistic bid for power, and there is no reason to believe that it will reach the number (183 seats are the most it has won as yet). Eighty seats alone come from a single state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), where the BJP was mauled in local elections just over a year ago. It has no local leadership worth the name there. Modi is popular among sections, but he is an outsider from the state of Gujarat, which is far removed from the Hindi heartland of which UP is the very heart.
The ruling Congress has also just started providing food grains at highly subsidized rates to much of the the country's poor, who comprise almost 70 percent of the population. While the program may not propel it back to power, it promises to be a game changer. The BJP has typically appealed to the Hindu middle classes; the Congress to the poor. The Congress hopes that the food program will re-energize its base, allowing it to win between 130 and 150 seats, whereupon it can scupper the BJP's chances.
Modi's polarizing personality makes it difficult for the BJP to attract allies. Aligned currently with it are only two small parties, which can deliver but a small number of seats. Even if the BJP wins 200 seats on its own, it still needs 73 more for parliamentary majority.
The only other outside leader to have shown open affinity for Modi is J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. But she has serious pretensions of her own of becoming prime minister. She did not make any public comment to felicitate Modi on his recent elevation, indicating that she is no mood to play second fiddle.
Jayalalithaa won a resounding victory in her state two years ago, and has retained her popularity through populist schemes. Her opposition remains in shambles, so she can hope to garner 30 out of the nearly 40 seats from her state. While she consorts with Modi, she has been careful not to get tainted by his anti-Muslim image. And more than three decades in politics has made her an opportunist. She would not hesitate to jettison Modi and the BJP for the Congress were that to fructify her chances of becoming prime minister.
The other regional leader with burgeoning potential is Mayawati, a woman from the untouchable caste, who led UP until she badly lost local elections a year ago. But major missteps by her victorious adversaries have rekindled a longing for her. With both the BJP and the Congress weak in UP, Mayawati can easily aspire to about half of UP's 80 seats.
India lacks no shortage of regional chieftains who would like to become prime minister, but no one else seems to be in a position to win between 30 and 40 seats. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of the large state of Bihar, seemed to have been one such but his dramatic divorce with the BJP over Modi's promotion promises to cost him Hindu votes. Other local leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee shone briefly, but their star appears to have waned.
Assuming that Modi gets 180 seats, he will need about a hundred more seats to form the government. If both Jayalalithaa and Mayawati win 30 seats each, and both decide to support Modi, he still lacks 40 seats. Some minor parties may come to his side, but he remains anathema to most major ones, so he will find it difficult to bridge the deficit.
The BJP could, of course, ask Modi to step aside as its prime ministerial candidate, and nominate in his stead someone more agreeable to allies, but after leading the BJP to its near all-time high of seats, Modi will not take the affront lightly. Compromise has never been his strong suit.
In any case, with the BJP at 180, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati will start fancying their own chances. Why support Modi when they can themselves have the crown? But if both win 30 seats, each would want to lead the coalition, and exclude the other from the mix. With 30 seats from one of them, and 180 from Modi, 60-odd seats would still be required from the same parties who do not want to be associated with Modi.
The Congress then becomes the party of choice for Jayalalithaa and Mayawati. Cobbling together an alliance would be so much easier. Were the Congress to pick up 140 seats, another 30 seats (from Jayalalithaa or Mayawati) leaves a gap of around 100-odd seats, a number that may appear daunting, but one that can be made up with a number of big regional parties. Additionally, the Congress knows that its own house is in bad order, and would to want to lick its wounds for some time, so it might be more accommodating to a small party than a resurgent Modi would be.
One can thus arrive at three conclusions. First, unless the BJP wins 200-odd seats, it could find it well nigh impossible to lead a government. Second, the Congress seems happy to play spoiler to Modi by actively seeking to prop up a smaller party. Third, the Congress's abdication and Modi's unpalatability will incline any regional leader with 30 seats to lean on the former to make a play for the prime minister's job. With just about half a year to go for national elections, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati lead the pack of regional contenders for premiership. India could well have a woman prime minister after decades.