NEW DELHI The popular expectation for India's coming general election is that it will be a showdown between the scion of the grand old Congress party's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a firebrand leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But with both big national parties deeply troubled and languishing in opinion polls, a group of increasingly powerful regional parties might emerge from the media frenzy around Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi as the dark-horse winners.
A rag-tag of parties with ambitious leaders and diverse local agendas, their empowerment could be a risk for Asia's third-largest economy, whose growth rate has already tumbled to a decade low after a long period of policy paralysis.
"They won't be thinking of the country, they'll think of their states," said D.H. Pai Panandiker, president of the RPG Foundation, an economic think-tank.
Most of these parties are keeping their options open ahead of the election, which is due by next May. But there is mounting speculation that they could form an alternative "third front" government after the poll, a step that would break the mold of alternating power between the Congress and its rival, the BJP.
Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a pivotal state in elections because it sends the most lawmakers to parliament, has come out squarely in favor of a Third Front.
Even if they fail to cobble together enough parliamentary seats to forge a coalition government of their own, opinion polls suggest that these groups will have more lawmakers - and therefore greater influence - at the national level than ever before.
However, they share little ideology, they all have agendas of their own, some are rivals within the same state, and even their hostility to the Congress and BJP changes with the wind.
Either as a bloc propping up a coalition led by one of the main parties or as a third front government supported by Congress or the BJP, they would bring instability and little chance of a fresh push for economic reform.
"The reform process will be the worst victim of the third front coming up," Panandiker said.
In the past, coalitions without the Congress party or BJP at the helm were unable to hold onto power for long. Many believe a new third front would not stick together for long, and some doubt the regional parties will even manage to unite.
"It's come up several times and it's never worked," said B.G. Verghese, a political analyst. "I think it's all whispering in the dark."
"TIME HAS COME"
No party has won enough parliament seats to form a government on its own since 1984, but the next election is expected to throw up the most fractured outcome yet thanks to a shift of popular support from national to regional parties.
Congress, which has ruled at the head of a coalition for the last nine years, goes into these polls battered by corruption scandals and popular disgust over its handling of the economy, while the BJP is torn by infighting.
Leaders of some of the regional groups spotted an opportunity to flex their muscle this week when the BJP chose the polarizing Narendra Modi as its election campaign leader, a move that exposed damaging rifts within the party.
Mamata Banerjee, the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal state who has sat in coalitions led by both the BJP and Congress, took the first step.
On Wednesday, she met a key aide of Bihar state's chief minister, who looks set to break his party's ties with the BJP, angry over Modi's elevation. She also picked up the phone to win over the chief of another eastern state, and she posted a telling message of her intentions on Facebook.
"Time has come for all the regional parties to come together and form a federal front in the coming Lok Sabha election," Banerjee wrote, referring to the lower house of parliament.
Some of those parties have voiced cautious support, most have stopped short of declaring a pact ahead of the election but Uttar Pradesh leader Yadav left little doubt he backed the idea.
"There is an obvious unwritten understanding between like-minded political outfits to give the nation governance with a difference. That could be possible only with a non-Congress and non-BJP regime in place at New Delhi," he told Reuters.
He said that regional parties should build their strength in their respective states in the run-up to the election and only join forces once the results are known.
A recent poll by Team Cvoter, a public opinion research company, showed that potential third front parties could win as many as 232 seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament. It suggested that the Congress party and the BJP would both fall at least 100 seats short of that.
The Indian Express daily dubbed the front's ambition to be taken seriously "overreach".
But Yashwant Deshmukh, Cvoter's director, believes the regional parties could make a move for power without the main parties if the election gives them enough seats. "Once the momentum comes, they'll dump the BJP and Congress," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sharat Pradhan in LUCKNOW and Sujoy Dhar in KOLKATA; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel)