The importance of the Karnataka elections lies well beyond the formation of a new government in the state. The poll is the first in a series of contests in the next few months in the four major states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Karnataka where the Congress is not in power.
If the Congress fares well in, say, at least three of them, then it might call for an early general election and may even sign the nuclear deal before taking the plunge. If not, it will face a crisis of leadership and of policies.
For one, the ruling party at the centre will not know what other populist measures on the lines of the loan waiver scheme for farmers will revive its fortunes. For another, failure will provoke a renewed clamour for projecting Rahul Gandhi as the future prime minister.
The stakes, therefore, are high for the Congress in Karnataka. But at the moment, its prospects look uncertain. Although an opinion poll has given it an edge over its two rivals in the state - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) - the outcome of the survey has been partly negated by the fact that the BJP's B.S. Yedyurappa was chosen by those interviewed as their favourite for the chief minister's post.
Arguably, this preference was the result of the disgraceful manner in which Yedyurappa was treated by his coalition partner, the JD-S, when it broke its own word to let him replace H.D. Kumaraswamy as chief minister for the rest of the government's term.
After initially refusing to step down, Kumaraswamy finally relented, but only for 10 days before his party pulled the rug from under Yedyurappa's feet. Not surprisingly, the BJP is banking on a sympathy vote based on this act of "betrayal" by its former ally. But so deeprooted is the cynicism of Indian politicians that notwithstanding the JD-S' act of perfidy, there is still speculation about a post-poll tie-up between it and the BJP since no party is expected to get a majority.
It is possible, therefore, that the disheartening prospect of the two estranged partners coming together again was the reason why the Congress gained a lead over them in the survey while Yedyurappa personally secured the sympathy vote.
But any elation that the Congress may feel has to be tempered by its own typical acts of indecision. For instance, after plucking former chief minister S.M. Krishna out of the Mumbai Raj Bhavan to lead the campaign in Karnataka, he has been left high and dry because of opposition from yet another former chief minister, Dharam Singh, and a chief ministerial aspirant, veteran Mallikarjun Kharge.
As a result, there is no certainty as to who will become chief minister if the Congress does manage to pip the BJP and the JD-S to the post or ties up with the latter, as it once did earlier, to form a coalition. government.
If the Congress is seemingly groping in the dark where the questions of its leader and possible partner are concerned, the BJP and the JD-S are not in the best of health either.
The BJP's ardent desire to use Karnataka as the first step on its road to power in the south is yet to be fulfilled - except for the 10 uncertain days when Yedyurappa was chief minister. And few expect it to come to power without accepting the humiliating offer of support from the patently unreliable JD-S.
Besides, as in all the parties, the internal rivalry between the mild-mannered Yedyurappa and the more assertive Ananth Kumar, who was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the centre, hasn't helped the party's cause.
If the JD-S appears more cohesive, the reason is that the dissenters in it like Siddaramiah and M.P. Prakash have left the party as they could not stand the whimsicality of the father-and-son duo - H.D. Deve Gowda, who was once prime minister, and Kumaraswamy.
Their antics in the period when the JD-S left the Congress' company and walked over to the BJP camp were vastly amusing if one ignored their disingenuousness. For instance, when Kumaraswamy hinted at joining hands with the BJP, his father pretended to be shocked and even threatened to commit suicide to uphold his secular credentials.
But few were fooled and Kumaraswamy adorned the chief minister's post without losing his father. But that the family had more tricks up its sleeve became evident when Kumaraswamy refused to relinquish his position for Yedyurappa just as Mayawati had refused to do a few years ago in Uttar Pradesh.
Since the BJP was taken for a ride in both the cases, they show the party's eagerness to grab power by any means. It is possibly this unseemly greed that makes its part-time allies treat it so shabbily.
In a way, Karnataka represents all the fault lines of Indian politics - lust for power, contempt for ideology, betrayal, internal bickering. No matter who wins, there will undoubtedly be a repetition of all these acts of political and personal folly in the coming weeks.
However, it will be the impact on the centre of the Congress' success or failure that will be of considerable interest.