For the Congress, the humiliation in Delhi was more crushing than the defeats elsewhere. More ignominious than the failure to win Madhya Pradesh after two successive defeats and the fall of the Congress government in Rajasthan was the party’s miserable third-place finish in Delhi. The Congress trailed way behind the Aam Aadmi Party led by Arvind Kejriwal, which has made a sparkling debut. The close finish in Chhattisgarh was poor compensation for the total rout in the other three States. The party was left grappling with the long-term implications of having lost so much ground to the AAP in Delhi. The extraordinary rise of the AAP testified to the success of the team of activists led by Mr. Kejriwal in drawing new volunteers outside of the traditional political class who effectively channelled the sense of public disgust with mainstream parties. The four States together send 72 members to the Lok Sabha, and the Congress would now have to acknowledge that its principal rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is the front runner for the bigger battle in 2014. Yet, given that these four States were primarily sites of bipolar contests between the BJP and the Congress, this verdict cannot be construed as a “semi-final”, as some analysts are inclined to argue. First, the 2014 general election will take place on a larger canvas with more leading players such as the regional parties, and the verdict will reflect this complex interplay. This said, there is no denying that in the race to be the single largest party in the next Lok Sabha, the BJP is surely ahead. To attract potential allies, especially from among fence-sitting regional players and to forge seat-sharing agreements before the next election, it is essential to be seen as the party most likely to head the next government at the Centre.
While the results certainly boost the BJP’s chances in 2014, it would be premature to read these as an unqualified endorsement of the party’s Hindutva brand of politics. For instance, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the star performer of the party and a charismatic leader in his own right, has led the BJP to victory in Madhya Pradesh for the second time. He sought a renewed mandate on the basis of his development schemes and welfare projects and has evidently succeeded. Likewise, in Chhattisgarh, the BJP under Raman Singh banked on food subsidies to win votes. In Rajasthan, the BJP rode on the strong anti-incumbency sentiment, bringing Vasundhara Raje back to another term in office. The Congress government under Ashok Gehlot failed miserably to make an impact; the development work in the State was uneven, and some of the populist schemes did not reach all the intended beneficiaries. In Delhi, the AAP ran a high-voltage campaign against corruption and the established political class, but the principal beneficiary of the anti-Congress wave was the BJP, which too kept the focus on corruption and rising prices. If the BJP is seeking to sharpen the ideological divide over secularism by nominating Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate ahead of the Assembly elections, there is little evidence from this round of elections that such a strategy will deliver guaranteed victories on the ground. Mr. Modi was omnipresent as the BJP’s face, yet the campaign stars were clearly the local leaders, and the issues dominant in the election discourse were livelihood and social security concerns.
There is no denying that Mr. Modi has injected some vigour into the BJP’s election strategy with his aggressive campaign style. The Gujarat strongman has expanded his sphere of influence well beyond his home State in the months since he was elevated to the national stage as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Even among those who disagree with his polarising politics are those who appreciate his decisiveness, and his pro-growth measures and relatively corruption-free governance in Gujarat. If anything, Mr. Modi has also been under pressure to reinvent himself as a mass leader showcasing a development-oriented agenda. Given the apparent ineffectiveness of an enfeebled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Gujarat Chief Minister has managed to present himself as a national alternative who can carry his party with him on all important issues. There is as yet no exact measure of the Modi effect in the Assembly elections. What is certain is that the new political energy that Mr. Modi has brought into the BJP’s national election campaign would be a consolidating factor at the national level.
In sum, while the four States are not representative of the rest of India, they offer strong indications of the trend of public opinion in major States of the Hindi heartland. In some of the other States, the Congress is pitted against regional or Left parties, and not directly against the BJP. In some others, the regional parties are the main players with little or no role for either the Congress or the BJP. After two terms in government, and a series of scams that led to the resignation of Ministers, the Congress-led UPA is likely to lose seats to the BJP and other parties in the next election. Just as the BJP could not have gained critical mass by relying on Hindutva alone, the Congress cannot hope to continue to win votes by merely targeting the BJP’s communally divisive agenda. Building election planks on scare scenarios too can offer only limited purchase. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP, the message that the voters appear to be sending to the political class is that the party which does not have a credible agenda for governance and development, is likely to perish. The rise of the Aam Aadmi party also signals public alienation from traditional political parties which appear increasingly disconnected from people’s aspirations and expectations.