Since the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections can be easily anticipated - no party will get a majority on its own - much of the attention is currently focused on the post-poll tie-ups to form a government.
However, the scene is complicated by the fact that virtually no major role is played by either principles or past rhetoric - factors that in normal circumstances provide some inkling about political conduct - in determining the choice of partners. As a result, all that remains to be seen is how many scruples are dumped by how many parties.
Conventional wisdom suggests an alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which have cohabited more than once in the past. And like all such convenient marriages, their partings were bitter.
Yet, if hope is expected to triumph over experience, the reason is the overpowering thirst for power of both the parties along with their desire to deny the Samajwadi Party (SP) another term in office.
But the irony is that all these parties have been allies at some point of time or the other. Just as BSP and BJP have been partners in government, so have BSP and SP. What is more, the present chief ministerial candidate of BJP, Kalyan Singh, who is also known for his less than glorious role as head of the government during the Babri mosque demolition, had once been the SP's ally.
To complete the tangled web, it can be recalled that when Kalyan Singh had left BJP at the time, he had called former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee a drunkard who knew little of what was going on after 8 p.m. and had blamed the BJP's senior leadership for their complicity in the mosque's destruction. Now, he has apparently been forgiven by BJP for his past fulminations.
Like Kalyan Singh, BSP leader Mayawati too had been free with her invectives against BJP. In fact, she had initially built her career by describing the upper caste-dominated BJP as a Manuvadi outfit, recalling the role of Manu, the ancient Hindu lawgiver who sanctified the caste system.
What this unflattering background of the leading actors shows is that there is no love lost between them. On the contrary, each one of them has a deep dislike and distrust of his or her potential friend or foe, thereby accentuating the possibility of their falling apart even if an expedient deal is struck for the moment.
Much depends, therefore, on who gains the upper hand in a tie-up and will be in a position to crack the whip when all the political benefits have been extracted from the alliance.
Mayawati had done so twice in the past as the chief minister of a coalition with BJP. And the latter must be aware that she is quite capable of doing so again although BJP, for the moment, does not seem to have any alternative but to go along with her.
The reason is that, of the three, the clouts of BSP and SP have been increasing over the last three elections while BJP's has been declining. For instance, BJP's tally of seats fell from a high of 221 in the 1991 assembly elections - at the height of the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation that led to the Babri mosque razing - to 174 in 1996 and then to 88 in 2002.
In contrast, BSP's tally rose from a lowly 12 in 1991 to a respectable 67 in 1996 and then to a comfortable 97 in 2002. The SP, too, increased its number of seats from 92 in 1991 to 110 in 1996 and then to 143 in 2002.
The SP also had its nose ahead of the rest in the 2004 parliamentary elections, when it won 35 seats (out of 80) while BSP won 19 and BJP 10.
The SP, of course, has another claim to fame. It is its ability to win friends and influence people, a gift that has landed it in trouble with the judiciary because of the way it lured away legislators from BSP and the Congress in 2003.
There is every reason to believe, therefore, that if SP can succeed in emerging as the No. 1 party (as in 2002 when it was denied a chance to form a government by then governor Vishnukant Shastri, who belonged to BJP), it will not be beyond its means to cobble together a majority. It is to guard against this possibility that BSP and BJP are supposed to be inching closer to each other.
But they would not have forgotten that when their alliance cracked up in 2003, the SP was able to lure away a sizeable number of BSP MLAs to its side with the speaker, Kesri Nath Tripathi, who belonged to BJP, facilitating the process. So, the SP can count on both Tripathi and Kalyan Singh as its friends in waiting.
And the reason why Tripathi and Kalyan Singh had once befriended the SP was their common dislike of Mayawati, whose assertive Dalit-based politics antagonized both the Brahmin Tripathi and the backward caste leader, Kalyan Singh.
This time, there is an additional reason for BJP to be suspicious of Mayawati because of her open courting of the upper castes, evident in the distribution of tickets. She has given as many as 86 tickets (in the 403-member assembly) to Brahmins compared to 89 to Dalits, her main group of supporters.
Not surprisingly, the BJP suspects that she may wean away a large chunk of the Brahmin vote from the Hindutva camp.
If the Congress is nowhere in the picture in all this permutation and combination, the reason is its steadily declining influence. Its number of seats dropped from 46 in 1991 to 33 in 1996 and then to 15 in 2002. Although it didn't fare too badly (in comparative terms) in the 2004 parliamentary election, winning nine seats, no one gives it much chance this time despite the personal interest taken by Rahul Gandhi in campaigning for the party.
If both the national parties - BJP and Congress - are lagging behind BSP and SP, the reason is the espousal of casteism by the two regional outfits. What is the bane of Hindu society is evidently a boon for these two.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)