The makeup of India's next government could lie in the hands of a trio of women who command a massive following in their regional heartlands, including a populist former movie star known as "Mother" to supporters.
Known more for their charisma than policies, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati are likely to play pivotal roles in coalition negotiations, after India’s marathon general election, which begins Monday.
Narendra Modi is the frontrunner but his party is not expected to win an outright majority, underlining the growing support for regional parties. It is now three decades since any party won more than 50 per cent of seats in parliament.
In particular, analysts say Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, could play the role of kingmaker for Modi after telling her supporters it is time for a change in New Delhi.
Noticeable by its absence at rallies has been criticism of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with reports saying Jayalalithaa has ordered her party to refrain from speaking out against India’s likely next prime minister.
“This Congress government – those looters – must be overthrown!” the 66-year-old, who fans usually refer to simply as “Amma” (Mother), told thousands of cheering supporters at a rally in the city of Pondicherry.
Lookalikes of a young Jayalalithaa and the late MG Ramachandran – her on-screen love interest in multiple movies – danced onto the stage as Bollywood-style songs belted out her praises.
Cinema and politics have long been intertwined in Tamil Nadu and her AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) party was founded by Ramachandran in 1972 after he split from the state’s DMK party.
Jayalalithaa took over after his death and won the first of three terms as chief minister in 1991, going on to earn the loyalty of supporters with a series of populist schemes but also drawing accusations of corruption and an autocratic governing style.
An “Amma canteen” scheme she recently set up offers lunches for three rupees (five cents) and she has promised more freebies if people vote for her party, which is slated to win up to 30 seats.
“She’s given us laptops, she’s given us bicycles,” 18-year-old student Janaki says at the rally in Pondicherry, three hours’ drive from the main southern city Chennai.
“She does what she promises, so people want to vote for her.”
A police raid found more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes at her residence in 1997 and a related court case accusing her of illegally amassing wealth is ongoing.
But ministers reverently bow down in her presence in Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing hub and one of India’s most prosperous states.
“There’s a big iron curtain about the way she operates. Nobody knows how she operates, who are her trusted confidantes,” says GC Shekhar, a journalist who has covered the state’s politics for three decades.
If Jayalalithaa is the queen of the south, Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party rule the roost in West Bengal and its capital Kolkata.
Banerjee’s decision to pull her 18 lawmakers out of the national coalition in 2012 over cuts in fuel subsidies left the Congress-led government reeling.
This time round, Trinamool’s share of West Bengal’s 42 seats is expected to be nearer 30.
Known as Didi (“Elder Sister”), analysts say it is hard to guess which way Banerjee will jump after results on May 16.
For all her castigation of Congress, she has also lashed out at the BJP, aware that Bengal’s many Muslim voters have little time for the hardline Hindu nationalist Modi.
If Jayalalithaa’s popularity stems from her glamorous past, Banerjee’s allure lies with her common touch.
“Mamata is popular because of her ordinary lifestyle and her ability to interact with the common people in a colloquial language,” Kolkata-based analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury told AFP.
While Banerjee is seen as a big sister, Mayawati is known as the Dalit Queen after a colourful career as champion of India’s lower-caste dalits (“untouchables”).
Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has 21 seats in the current Lok Sabha, says India will be “ruined” if Modi comes to power.
But she has previously cut a deal with the BJP which enabled her to be chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.
N Sathiya Moorthy, a Chennai-based analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, says the three women had much in common.
“Definitely their image, their fighting spirit, their charisma, and their administrative skills to a great extent, have left them in good stead across the board when it comes to voting.”
Subhash Agrawal, a Delhi-based analyst, said Modi will have to reach out to them with even the most generous projections putting the BJP several dozen seats short of a majority in the 543-seat parliament.
“Where are the remaining 40 or 50 seats going to come from?” asks Agrawal.
Jayalalithaa has made no secret of her own interest in being prime minister.
Although such a scenario is seen as unlikely, the former actress could still make a decisive intervention on the national stage in return for senior cabinet posts or legislation that will benefit her core.
“She’s probably got the most friendly disposition towards the BJP and Modi,” Agrawal says. “Jayalalithaa could be very instrumental.”