By Douglas Busvine
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Opposition challenger Narendra Modi's hunt for allies to emerge from India's April-May election with a coalition large enough to rule is gaining momentum, with regional politicians flocking to team up with his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A trickle of electoral pacts that began with a tie-up in the eastern battleground state of Bihar has grown to a rush since the weekend. "Foes flock to Pied Piper Modi," read a headline in the Mail Today newspaper on Tuesday.
"This is a sign of forming confidence," said Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS polling group, who sees the BJP's candidate for prime minister as the clear frontrunner heading into the five-week-long election that starts on April 7.
Modi wants control over at least 272 of the 543 lower house seats at stake to form a majority government, a feat the BJP has never achieved on its own because its mainly Hindu constituency is not spread evenly across the world's largest democracy.
Pollsters estimate his party and core allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) may win about 230 seats. That means he needs to woo further partners, including defectors from the Congress party's ruling coalition, to build a working majority.
He is doing just that, with all-news TV channels breathlessly reporting deals struck from Assam and Darjeeling in the northeast to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in the south, where the BJP is increasingly concentrating its efforts.
"The next few days are going to be extremely important in terms of the BJP and NDA consolidating on the present situation," said Arun Jaitley, the BJP's opposition leader in the upper house of parliament.
BIG TENT POLITICS
The last time a political party won outright control over India's lower house was in 1984, when the Congress party won a huge majority following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Coalition politics has been the rule since then, including during a BJP-led government in power from 1998 to 2004.
Modi is however hobbled by allegations that, as leader of the Western state of Gujarat, he failed to prevent religious riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000, mostly Muslim, people were killed. He has denied wrongdoing.
The BJP became isolated as a result. Its progress now in winning the support of regional and minority groups has "broken the myth" that it cannot build a broad government, said pollster Kumar. Modi will, though, have to strike a balance between promising seats and cabinet posts to allies, and his personal ambition to become premier.
A strong showing by the BJP could dash the ambitions of regional leaders who hope a loose alliance of smaller parties - known as a "Third Front" - will end up holding the balance of parliamentary power. But some may be prepared to go with Modi's alliance if they can exact a price.
In a campaign stop on Monday, Modi mocked the Third Front.
"They all dream of being prime ministers," he said. "The Third Front only comes together at election time."
Building a broad pre-poll alliance would increase the chances that the country's president would call on the BJP to form a government after votes are counted on May 16. But it would increase risks of coalition strife.
"These are highly radioactive materials," said Vinod Sharma, political editor of the Hindustan Times, of the Third Front leaders. "Any kind of radioactivity in a coalition is cancerous as it destroys the health of the government."
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by John Chalmers)