Whatever the failings of Maharashtra's political class, and these are many, a lack of optimism is not among them. Even after the last date for the withdrawal of nominations to the Assembly elections, there are more fronts, real and imagined, alive and still in the making. More candidates, lots more spending. And a rebel-to-candidate ratio that can only be described as entertaining. The chaos and confusion are bewildering. A senior Shiv Sena figure, discarded by his party, contests the election as a Congress candidate. His nephew leaves the Sena to join the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena of Raj Thackeray. And that's one of the easier moves to follow.

Yet, the key question in the race to control Maharashtra's 288-seat legislature boils down to: who will the fragmentation benefit? Will the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party gain from a multiplicity of fronts which could dissipate the anti-Congress vote? Or will the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party benefit from the Third Front's cutting into the Congress-NCP vote? That is the million-dollar question. (And millions of dollars - or rupee equivalents - are being spent by parties to get the answer they like). Given the number of known faces in the fray for every seat, and the complexity of alliance and other factors, that answer might differ in each constituency.

The Lok Sabha elections of April-May were a lot closer in this State than many might believe. The difference between the Congress-NCP and the Sena-BJP fronts was narrower than it appears at first glance. The former may have won 25 Lok Sabha seats and the latter only 20, but in terms of Assembly segments, the Congress-NCP combine led its saffron rivals by less than a dozen. Then too, there were others in the fray - which did make a significant, even decisive, difference to the poll outcome.

The MNS, for instance, torpedoed the Sena-BJP in the Mumbai-Thane region. The MNS did not win a single Lok Sabha seat and led in very few segments, but the lakhs of votes it gathered in those was enough to hand the Congress-NCP victory in a State where they had assiduously pursued defeat. To this day, in the present round, the Congress strategy is mostly based on one assumption. That the MNS will fare even better in a State-level election where regional issues dominate. In short, a Congress-NCP win is predicated on how well the MNS does.

The Lok Sabha elections of April-May were a lot closer in this State than many might believe. The difference between the Congress-NCP and the Sena-BJP fronts was narrower than it appears at first glance.

 •  MH Polls: Act II, Scene I

There is not much else the Congress-NCP can count on. Massive job losses, a crippling price rise and abysmal governance are not the best platform to reach out to the voters on. The cheery confidence of the Congress, though, springs from the May Lok Sabha polls. In those, it lost four per cent in vote share compared to 2004 but gained four seats thanks to the MNS sinking the Sena. The Congress-NCP government's record is easily among the worst in the country. It's hard to find a single poll promise it actually fulfilled. Popular perception doesn't worry the parties much, though. In the Congress view, the math should do the trick this time, too. More so when the Opposition has failed to exploit major issues and discontent to put the ruling combine on the mat.

In Vidarbha, the Bahujan Samaj Party did not lead in a single segment in May, but drew lakhs of votes across the region. Enough votes to torpedo the Sena-BJP in eastern Vidarbha's five Lok Sabha seats while blowing the Congress-NCP out of the water in the five seats of western Vidarbha. Lesson: you can determine the outcome of several contests even if your candidates run a distant third. In the Assembly polls, where State, regional and local-level issues gain weight, this volatility grows.

And boy has it grown. The Republican Left Democratic Front (or 'third front') is a rickety outfit. But its member parties, where not squabbling with one another, can cause upsets in some constituencies. In some seats, though not many, its candidates are actually in the running. Former NCP rebels and other mavericks now with this front like Sadashiv Mandlik and Raju Shetty in Kolhapur could, where they are not fighting each other, pose big problems for the ruling alliance in its western Maharashtra stronghold. RPI unity, shallow, limited and unstable though it is, could help some third front candidates pick up a few thousand votes in some places. Votes that could topple a would-be winner in close contests.

Then there is the BSP, which is contesting all 288 seats in the State. Its best bet in making an impact will again be Vidarbha. There, it could hurt both major fronts. However, the way this worked in May, it means the Sena-BJP is already ahead in about 30 of Vidarbha's's 62 segments, with the Congress-NCP ahead in only 27.

Raj Thackeray's MNS is strongest in Mumbai-Thane, Pune and Nashik. The party is contesting around 140 seats across the State and could strike a sharp bargain when the results are out. Apart from the limited seats it will win, MNS candidates are strong in quite a few constituencies where the Congress-Sena race is really close. The MNS also strongly brings alive the Marathi versus non-Marathi issue. A factor which traps the Shiv Sena between proving its Marathi credentials and leading a broader alliance and agenda.

But the greatest role of the MNS is in dividing the Sena vote. The media now see Raj Thackeray as the newsmaker of this election. In previous State polls - despite clear evidence of his decline in the past few years - a captive media saw only one newsmaker: Sharad Pawar. Today, they barely know where he is.

The RPI of Prakash Ambedkar has struck its own path, declining to be part of the RLDF and contesting over 120 seats. Who will it affect the most? The Congress-NCP that counts on Dalit votes? Or will the Congress actually gain as the Dalit vote of the third front splinters?

Next, there is Vinay Kore, Cabinet Minister in the present government, one-time NCP leader and weighty in western Maharashtra. His Jan Surajya Shakti (JSS) party has more than 50 candidates in the fray. Mr. Kore speaks of possible post-poll alliances with the MNS, stirring the pot before the stew is in it.

And finally, there are the rebels - a factor that affects all parties in the contest. It would take a census to count the lot. Some of them are locally strong politicians who can make or mar their former party's chances in their boroughs. With all these factors and actors in play, several seats become hard to predict. The Congress has a simple attitude towards rebels: get elected on any platform you like, then join us in the government. This has often worked in Maharashtra.

There are two ways of looking at who the RLDF or third front will hurt more. A widely-held view is that it must hurt the Congress-NCP. This is because the third front has voters (for instance, Dalits) who could otherwise go with the Congress-NCP but not with the Sena-BJP. And the Sena-BJP voter is most unlikely to be seduced by the RLDF. The Congress take on this is the opposite. It sees the multiple opposition fronts as splitting the anti-Congress, anti-NCP vote. It believes that the Third Front, the MNS and others will do for it what Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam Party did for Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh - destroy the main rival by dividing the anti-Congress vote.

It's another matter that Andhra Pradesh is a very different State and YSR was a cut above his Maharashtra counterparts. And that that government actually delivered on some programmes in the social sector. The Congress remains convinced that Maharashtra will witness a repeat of the Andhra math. It realises that if there were no MNS, the Sena-BJP would win. From this it concludes that the MNS being there assures the Congress-NCP alliance of victory. There is truth in the Congress logic that the division of the Marathi vote between the Senas will help. The gamble is on how much.

Another curious aspect of the race in Maharashtra is that both the major alliances have one lame-duck partner with them. On the one side, the NCP seems to be imploding. On the other, the Sena is hamstrung by the BJP's decline. At this level, it's a question of which side's 'B' team will fare worse. And of how the 'A' sides will limp past the line when hobbled by partners who can't pull their own weight.

In case of a hung Assembly, where neither major alliance crosses the 145-seat mark, the Congress-NCP will have an edge in government formation. They've been in power 10 years. And when it comes to answering million-dollar questions, the more millions you have, the more it helps.