Touted as the world's largest democratic exercise, India's month-long parliamentary elections began on April 7, calling on some 814 million registered voters to elect their representatives for the 545-member lower house of parliament - the Lok Sabha.
The vote is widely seen as a two-front contest, with the latest opinion polls predicting a strong lead for the opposition NDA coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Several polls also suggest that the ruling Congress Party-led UPA alliance may suffer its worst electoral defeat since the country's independence in 1947.
A hung parliament?
But even if the BJP-led coalition were to emerge as the largest political bloc after the elections, it would only win around 220-230 parliamentary seats, according to the most optimistic estimates. That number would fall short of the mark of 272 seats required to form government. This would, in turn, force the BJP to seek support from other regional parties, particularly those led by women in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh; states which are considered to be crucial electoral battlegrounds.
The states account for 161 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies up for grabs in the current polls, a number that could have an immense impact on the post-poll political calculus of these parties. Regional outfits that win a considerable number of seats in these areas will be in a position to determine who will take over the reins in the capital, New Delhi.
Although representation of women in the Indian parliament is low - with female MP's accounting for only 11 percent of the total seats - women-led outfits play a dominant role in the political landscape of these three states and their parties are expected to become the largest seat-getters after BJP and the Congress party. In case of a hung parliament, these women would hence be in a position to have a say on who India's next Prime Minister will be.
Milan Vaishnav, India expert at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes it is likely that the BJP will have to rely on the support of at least one of the three major female party leaders to come to power.
This view is shared by freelance political analyst Sameer Jafri who points out the three women "could play kingmakers in the upcoming elections as none of the two main national political coalitions - UPA and NDA - are expected to win an outright majority on their own."
What remains unclear, however, is whom these women might support. 66-year old Jayalalitha Jayaram is the chief minister - the executive head of government - of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Despite her initial support to the "Third Front," a grouping of political parties formed as an alternative to the Congress and BJP-led camps, the politician later left the alliance and decided to contest the elections alone. Polls suggest her party, AIADMK, may win around 25 of the 39 parliamentary constituencies in the state.
Although Jayalalitha had partnered with the BJP in the past, the female politician has yet to endorse Modi's candidacy for PM. Moreover, it is widely believed that the three-time Chief Minister harbors aspirations of taking up the top post in New Delhi herself.
In this regard, she has been endorsed by one of the other leading ladies of Indian politics: Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal. Banerjee, whose support could also be crucial to the country's future government, declared that she would be willing to back the Tamil Nadu leader for the post of premier, but not BJP's Modi.
Banerjee's party, Trinamool Congress (TMC), had been part of the ruling Congress-led UPA coalition until September 2012. The politician withdrew her support to the alliance after failing to compel the Manmohan Singh-led government to rollback certain decisions on price hikes and foreign investment.
Since the break-up, Banerjee has vehemently refused to support the Congress party and its presumed PM nominee Rahul Gandhi, arguing that the national outfit had "lost all its credentials, all its credibility." However, the 59-year-old politician could once again play a key role after the polls as her party is expected to increase its tally from the present figure of 19 to some 25 to 30 MP's.
A female PM?
Another female regional leader who hopes to play a bigger role in national politics is Mayawati from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Like the other two women, she too is not allied with any of the two main contenders.
Her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had secured 20 Lok Sabha seats in the last election. But recent opinion polls indicate that the BSP may only win between 15 and18 seats this time around. Nevertheless, neither Congress nor the BJP "can afford to alienate any of these three key power brokers," said political analyst Vaishnav.
The idea of one of them becoming the country's next premier is not so far-fetched. Mayawati even publicly declared her desire to become the country's next PM. Although outsiders may wonder how the leader of such a small party could become the country's premier, it's not an impossible feat as previous examples show.
For instance, when no party won an outright majority during the 1996 general elections, several regional outfits backed by the Congress party decided to form a coalition government. This enabled H D Deve Gowda, a former chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka, to become prime minister despite his party only winning 46 parliamentary seats. A repeat of such a hung parliament scenario could boost chances for one of these women becoming India's next PM.