NEW DELHI // Nearly three full months before India's presidential election, the country's most powerful political parties have begun the delicate dance of floating a consensus candidate who would best represent their interests as the head of state.
The five-year term of the current president, Pratibha Patil - India's first woman president - expires this summer, and elections to choose the next president have been scheduled for July 25.
The names of potential presidential candidates have started leaking into the media. These include the current vice-president Hamid Ansari, the defence minister A K Antony, the finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, and the former president A P J Abdul Kalam.
Last weekend Mr Antony, a senior member of the ruling Congress party, went to Chennai to visit M Karunanidhi, head of a regional party called the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
The DMK is one of the Congress' key allies in the central coalition government, and although Mr Antony admitted that his visit concerned the choice of a presidential candidate, he would not reveal what he discussed with Mr Karunanidhi.
On Monday, a Congress party spokesman, Manish Tewari, hinted only that discussions were in progress. "We should allow this whole process to play itself out, rather than create an unnecessary hype about the whole thing," he said. On the same day, Mr Mukherjee was mobbed by reporters outside parliament, all asking him about his projection as president. "Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!" Mr Mukherjee exclaimed, before urging the reporters not to "indulge in any speculation."
The post of the Indian president, as Chintamani Mahapatra, a political scientist with the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out, is "by and large a ceremonial one, as defined in the Constitution."
Primarily, the Indian president, after general elections, invites the party with the majority of seats in the lower house of parliament to form the government.
Apart from this, the president's most potent power is the ability to issue ordinances when parliament is not in session, although these are temporary and must be approved by parliament within six weeks.
As the Indian political landscape has changed, however, the post has grown more important.
"For a long time, politics was driven by a single party - the Congress," Mr Mahapatra said. "But of late, coalition politics has come to stay, and there are multiple parties competing, with no party getting the clear required majority."
In such cases, Mr Mahapatra said, it was left to the discretion of the president as to which party to invite to form the government. "There's no statute to say that if Party A has 160 seats and Party B has 161 seats, that the president has to choose Party B. Party A could, with coalition allies, still form a government."
The Indian president is chosen by an "electoral college" that comprises the members of both houses of parliament as well as all the members of the state legislatures - nearly 4,900 people, in total.
The votes of these legislators are weighted, however, such that the total value of the votes of the state legislators - who number roughly 4,100 - equals the total value of the votes of the 776 central parliamentarians.
Typically, parties try to settle on a consensus candidate, agreeable to the government as well as to the opposition.
In 2007, Ms Patil got nearly twice the votes of her rival, the then-vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. In 2002, Mr Abdul Kalam won his presidential election by securing nearly 90 per cent of the electoral college's votes. The Indian president is often a politician but not always. While Ms Patil was a former member of parliament, Mr Kalam was an aerospace engineer. Commentators in the media have frequently proposed non-politicians for the post. The name of N R Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of the mammoth software giant Infosys, has regularly emerged.
Last October, when asked by a television channel about the prospect, Mr Murthy said that he would be "very happy" to take on the position and to "add value to our people in any capacity." He warned at the time, however, that it was too early for such speculation.
Technically, nothing prohibits Ms Patil from becoming president a second time. But traditionally, presidents have been changed at the end of every term. Only India's first president, Rajendra Prasad, held the office for longer - first as an interim president from 1950 to 1952, then as president-elect for two successive terms from 1952 to 1962.
Last week the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indicated that it was willing to back Mr Kalam to become only the second president to serve two terms. Mr Kalam's name had been floated by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the head of the regional Samajwadi Party in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
"The BJP will never favour the candidature of Ansari and Mukherjee," Sushma Swaraj, a senior BJP leader, said last week.
"If Mulayam Singh Yadav takes Kalam's name, then we can respond favourably."
But subsequent reports indicated a softening of the BJP's stand in favour of Mr Mukherjee, a Congress politician. "He is a good politician. There are no two opinions about that," a BJP member of Parliament, Kirti Azad, said on Friday.