Take the municipal corporation elections in Maharashtra, due in 10 cities on February 1. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance, working with other secular groups, stood an excellent chance of winning them. Its main adversary, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party, is in poor shape thanks to a major split in the Sena wrought by Raj Thackeray and the BJP's disarray after Pramod Mahajan's murder by his brother.
Together, the Congress-NCP could deliver the pasting of a lifetime to the Sena-BJP in the four cities where it rules: Mumbai, Thane, Akola and Nashik.
That is not to be.
Barring Akola, the two parties won't have a pre-election alliance. They might also miss a chance to end their long exile from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which presides over the destiny of 13 million people, runs activities ranging from education to public transport to drainage, has an annual budget of Rs 12,500 crore (Rs 125 billion), and contributes Rs 58,000 crore (Rs 580 billion) in taxes.
The reasons for the Congress-NCP's failure to seal an alliance have to do with internal turf wars as well as mutual rivalry. Narayan Rane has gained prime importance in the Congress after his candidates' victories in recent by-elections. This has made Gurudas Kamat, a Mumbai-centred politician, insecure.
Rane, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's former right-hand man, is locked in serious battle with another ex-Sainik, the NCP's Chhagan Bhujbal.
Ironically, they are targeting not just the Sena, but also each other. In Mumbai, alliance talks collapsed because the NCP demanded 70 tickets, five times higher than its current strength in the 227-seat corporation.
The Congress has recently increased its lead over the NCP in the Maharashtra assembly and put it on the defensive. Maharashtra is the NCP's sole political base. The Congress is sending confusing signals to NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
On the one hand, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh questions the rationale of the NCP's existence as a separate party and calls for its merger with the Congress. On the other, he also threatens that the Congress will 'go it alone' in the coming general election.
Singh is right to say Pawar quit the Congress because he questioned Sonia Gandhi's leadership in 1999, but implicitly accepted it by joining a Congress-led government in 2004. However, political dynamics aren't determined just by principle and logic.
At work is also the social coalition the NCP represents, mainly in western Maharashtra, based on the affluent farmer, rooted in sugar and grape cultivation. The NCP has a small base in Vidarbha's Bhandara district, home of Civil Aviation Minister and 'beedi king' Praful Patel.
So long as Pawar has the option of being a big fish in a small pond (the NCP), rather than a small fish in a big pond (the Congress), he will choose the first and try to maximise his political and financial clout.
The Congress doesn't fully trust Pawar. In 1978, he defected from it. Besides, some Congressmen suspect he is secretly in league with Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Whatever the truth, the tragedy is that the Congress-NCP's failure to unite, and a further division in the secular vote thanks to the 29-party Third Front, will probably help the Sena-BJP just when they seemed destined to go into a tailspin.
The Congress may not do brilliantly in the other poll-bound states either.
In Punjab and Uttarakhand, it is plagued by factionalism. The anti-incumbency factor is heavy here because of a grim agrarian crisis and rising unemployment. The BJP may be over-optimistic in claiming that it will win 'convincingly on its own' in Uttarakhand --unlike in Punjab, where it will piggyback the Shiromani Akali Dal.
But it could certainly put up a fight if it can contain the rivalry between former chief minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari (a Kumaon Thakur) and ex-Union minister B C Khanduri (a Garhwali Brahmin).
In Manipur too, the Congress faces an uphill task because of widespread popular alienation with the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and its handling of the Naga problem, which directly affects the hill districts, and according to the Imphal valley's majority Meitei community, threatens the state's integrity.
However, it is Uttar Pradesh, India's largest -- and the world's sixth most populous -- state that will see a real battle royal.
The Congress is a relatively small player here. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party are the giants. UP politics has been stirred, if not shaken, with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal quitting Yadav's ministry and the Congress withdrawing support to it.
Yadav, who commands a majority thanks to numerous splits and defections, is likely to ensure his government's survival. But his opponents are worried that he won't play fair during the elections. They want the elections held under President's Rule. But that won't be easy to impose.
Recent opinion polls suggest a steep decline in the SP's seat tally -- to under 100 from 152 in the 403-strong assembly. Yadav will have to try hard to defend his eroding support base among Muslims and Other Backward Castes, especially other than the Yadavs whose loyalty he can count on.
Many Muslims are disillusioned with Yadav because he didn't draw up a fresh notification in the Babri Masjid case to try Lal Kishenchand Advani. Yadav also participated in a condolence meeting for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Bhanu Pratap Shukla. The chief minister offered lavish hospitality to top BJP leaders during their recent Lucknow national council meeting.
Yadav has tried to signal that he is still with the 'secular agenda' by calling upon All-India Muslim Personal Law Board chairman Maulana Rabey Hasan Nadvi. He is also wooing some Most Backward Classes groups by offering them Scheduled Caste status and hence job reservations. He is unlikely to succeed in a hurry.
Mayawati, for her part, has fully consolidated her Dalit base and is now aggressively courting Brahmins and Vaishyas to win 'topping-up' votes. Although the BSP has gained in influence in the past two years, it didn't participate in the recent elections to urban local bodies. In some cities, its cadres voted for the BJP to defeat their principal rival, the SP.
That artificially bloated the BJP's post-2002 gains, which were small -- one additional municipal body out of 12. But it is undeniable that the election results have boosted the BJP cadres' morale after a long period of decline, demoralisation and demobilisation.
The BJP can at best compete for the Number Three position in UP. Its social base is narrow, confined mainly to urban upper-caste Hindus. It lacks a programme or strategy that can help it widen its appeal. Its Ram temple agenda finds few backers. Thus, it would be a miracle if the party improves significantly over its 2002 assembly election performance (20 percent of the total vote, and 88 seats).
Where does that leave the Congress? Its prospects have been looking up since the 2004 Lok Sabha election and Rahul Gandhi's active participation in party affairs. Yet, the Congress has set itself a modest target for the coming assembly election: It wants each of its nine members of Parliament from UP to ensure the victory of at least four assembly candidates.
Even if that target is fully achieved, it will only give the Congress less than a 10th of the assembly seats. This will enable it to provide a 'balancing' vote and enter a coalition government as a minor partner.
If the Congress wants to emerge as a big player, it will have to develop clarity about two things. What social groupings or coalition does it want to represent -- especially in polarised states like UP and Bihar -- but more generally in the country as a whole?
And what will be the programmatic and policy content of its election appeal?
How can it hope to expand its social support base by redefining the aam aadmi closer to the garib and by drawing up imaginative pro-people policies?
So far, the Congress has basically two achievements to its credit: the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. It owes these to the National Advisory Council and the pressure of progressive intellectuals and civil society organisations.
Unless it improves on this performance, it is hard to see how it can 'go it alone' in the next Lok Sabha election or even do respectably in assembly polls in a critical state like UP.
This will not happen through a natural, spontaneous process. It demands vision, moral clarity and an ideological commitment to Left-of-Centre policies. Can the Congress leadership summon up the will to effect such change?