New Delhi, March 2: The starters gun has gone off on the worlds biggest pentathlon with the announcement of a five-phase general election that will begin on April 16 and throw up the outcome exactly a month later on May 16.
But the key contenders are for the time being keeping an eye on not the voter but on one another ó and in some cases on the astrologer.
The Congress and the BJP are stepping into the battleground armed with the shared knowledge that the spoils of victory would perhaps have many more claimants in 2009 than in 2004. The immediate imperative is not only to cling to existing allies but also co-opt new ones and thwart the emergence of a third alternative fostered by Prakash Karat and his regional friends.
The Congress, which had declared it would not have a national alliance but state-level understandings, is having to cope with allies such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), whose leaders are clamouring for a bigger share of the national pie.
Congress sources conceded that the War of 2009 would be won or lost on the battlefield of alliances. Efforts to sew up alliances will focus on Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu.
The arduous task of working out a seat-sharing adjustment with Mamata Banerjee is also demanding the high commands attention. Although the first step towards an understanding was announced last night, the deal can be said to be sealed only after seats are distributed between the Trinamul Congress and the Congress.
The BJP has optimised its quota of allies by adding one more hours before the poll schedule was announced. Ajit Singh, whose Rashtriya Lok Dal has a base of Jats in western Uttar Pradesh, teamed up with the NDA to offer a fighting chance to leaders such as Rajnath Singh, who is taking his first shot at parliamentary polls from Ghaziabad near Delhi.
The Congress is still trying to wean away H.D. Deve Gowdas Janata Dal (Secular) from the Karat-led third alternative. But Congress sources said Gowdas son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, had discreetly conveyed to their leaders that his father was told by his astrologer that he would be Prime Minister again.
Anxiety was writ large on the faces of the hordes, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, that thronged the Congress head office this evening with one question: is the alliance with the Samajwadi Party done? The answer they got: the Congress had asked for 25 of the 80 seats but Amar Singh was willing to concede 15 to 17.
Samajwadi sources said Mulayam Singh Yadav is likely to meet Sonia Gandhi again over the next couple of days.
Among the positives the Congress is banking on are the quality of its leadership and the absence of any scandal at the top.
IPL dates clash
Some of the poll dates clash with the other blockbuster of the season ó the Indian Premier League, which will outlast the general election by beginning on April 10 and continuing till May 24.