The Congress faces a daunting task in Uttar Pradesh. And it isn't only about increasing its seats and vote percentage in the 2007 assembly polls.
The party also has to ensure that Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party loses some seats and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party does not get a clear majority in the 403-member assembly.
In the 2002 assembly elections, the SP had won 143 seats, the BSP 98, the Bharatiya Janata Party 88 and the Congress 25. Subsequent developments have reworked this tally.
"Our gameplan is to act as a spoiler so that neither the SP nor the BSP gets a clear majority. At the same time, we will try to secure enough seats so that the Congress becomes a player in the post-poll scenario," said Salman Khursheed, UP Pradesh Congress Committee chief.
Though Kanshi Ram was reduced to a picture on the BSP's posters since his illness three years back, state Congress leaders apprehend that his death could generate sympathy for Mayawati and help her increase her tally.
In their view, if Mayawati increases her vote share and seats in UP, she could end up exercising unbridled power. A similar logic is applied to the SP. Only in Mulayam's case, he would also re-double his effort to set up a third front of non-Congress non-BJP parties.
The need to check the growth of the SP and the BSP is also linked to the Congress perception that it cannot hope to revive its fortunes in UP until the SP, the BSP or the BJP show a decline.
These three parties have, in the last two decades, whisked away the Congress' traditional upper caste-Muslim-Dalit supporters and left it without a vote bank to call its own.
The BJP may have slipped in recent years, but the SP and the BSP remain dominant forces in the state. Both have grown at the Congress' expense and their interest lies in seeing its decimation.
"The difference between the two parties is that while Mulayam seeks to destroy the Congress, the BSP tries to take away our votes. It's a difference between an aggressive takeover and a friendly takeover," said Khursheed, a known Mulayam baiter who made an unsuccessful bid to forge an alliance with the BSP in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress would need to win about 50 seats to stall these two parties and play a role in the post-election scenario. But working up such a tally is a tall order for a party that got only 25 seats in the 2002 polls.
The Congress has, however, pegged its hopes on two facts: one, it had led in 45 assembly segments in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections; and two, both the SP and the BSP have touched their "natural upper limit" on the number of seats they can win. But this argument remains to be tested on the ground.
The Congress hopes to use the local body elections in November as a "dipstick" to find out whether the worst is over and it can rebuild itself by boosting the morale of its cadres with the call of hum honge kamyaab (we will overcome), capitalising on Sonia's popularity and cashing on the UPA's flagship programmes like the job guarantee and right to information acts.
It has also revived Indira Gandhi's slogan of garibi hatao to signal its intent to gel economic and social reforms and address the problems of the poor, including farmers.
But the BSP's decision not to contest the forthcoming local body polls would deny the Congress the opportunity to test the waters.