Until the initial election trends become available on May 16, it will remain a big question as to whether the new government will be led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress or a coalition of small parties that coalesce into a Third Front. In fact, except for the proponents of this putative Third Front, few observers believe that such a grouping is likely. Yet, even as more than 100 seats are yet to go to the polls, the chatter about a Third Front is growing.

That, says observers, is merely a rhetorical strategy by both the Congress and proponents of a Third Front to refurbish their credentials with voters in the constituencies that are going to the polls in the last two phases of the election, on May 7 and May 12.

Congress Rahul Gandhi’s statement on Saturday ruling out support for such a coalition had been preceded by a series of remarks from both sides over the week. In fact, the fuss was started by the Congress when Salman Khurshid and Prithviraj Chavan said their party could consider taking the support of a Third Front to form the government or offer support for such a grouping.

On Friday, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat asserted that a repeat of the 1996 election was possible, and the Congress might be forced to support a secular government to prevent the BJP from taking power. In private conversations, Samajwadi Party leaders have been claiming that they would be able to win Congress support to form a Third Front government at the Centre.

Failing to respond to this debate would have signaled that the Congress had conceded defeat well before the results had even been declared. That’s why Rahul Gandhi in a speech in Amethi ruled out any support to the Third Front to form the next government, promising voters that should the Congress return to power, every poor Indian would get a home and free treatment in hospitals and every senior citizen a pension. “We won’t support any Front,” he said. “Koi jod tod nahin karenge. Hamare poore number ayenge. We will get the number of seats we need.”

Though he sounded very categorical, it doesn’t mean that doors have been closed to talks after the results come in. The two sides will be forced to change their position if the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance isn’t able to muster adequate numbers and the Congress does not to emerge as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha. If the Congress becomes the largest party, it is likely to do everything it can to form a UPA-III government. Only if that fails to happen and the cards fall in favour of the Third Front, will the grand old party consider a repeat of 1996, when a Congress-backed National Front government came to power.

Whatever the election outcome, parties across the board acknowledge that the era of coalition governments that began in 1989 is unlikely to end soon. The last time a single party got absolute majority in the Lok Sabha was in 1984, when the Congress came to power. The governments formed in 1989 and 1991 were minority governments. Since 1996, India has been ruled by coalition government. There is no reason to believe that 2014 will be any different.