The results, while anticipated, have clearly shaken up the Congress. But the history of elections in the four States shows no direct correlation can be drawn between victory in the latest round and a general election

In the end, one result eclipsed all others as the curtain came down on what can easily be called the most watched set of Assembly elections in recent years. The verdict was out on Sunday for the first four of the five States that went to the polls through November-December — Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.

However, all eyes were riveted on the Herculean fight staged right in the heart of the national capital: as Arvind Kejriwal trounced Sheila Dikshit in the New Delhi constituency, thousands of broomsticks — the election symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party – went triumphantly up in the air as if to announce that the party had arrived, and beware those who took it lightly.

A delirious AAP spokesman seized the mike at a TV studio and declared that the party will sit in the Opposition in the Delhi Assembly, even as it prepares to replicate its success nationally.

This was no ordinary election. A rank newcomer had taken on a Congress veteran who was not just the Chief Minister of Delhi but who, over the past 15 years, had emerged as the face of the megalopolis. More important, New Delhi represents the political heartbeat of the city as well as the nation. In the event, Mr. Kejriwal’s individual performance from the constituency was enhanced by the power-house debut of his party, which won 28 of Delhi’s 70 seats, trailing the Bharatiya Janata Party by just 3. Not surprisingly, the Kejriwal-AAP show appeared to have unsettled the BJP as much as the Congress, taking some of the sheen off the latter’s own anticipated 4-0 clean sweep of the Assembly elections.

Just months ago, the AAP coming so close to power in a State of such immense political significance would have been unthinkable. A new-born with almost no resources, the AAP had struggled to find suitable candidates for Delhi’s 70 seats. What the party did offer instead was idealism in dollops — misplaced and impracticable, its critics said — and a promise to deliver clean, corruption-free governance. The message caught the imagination of voters cutting across social backgrounds; the AAP cut into the Congress’s votes in the slum clusters as it did for the BJP’s votes among the elite sections. The AAP began by ridiculing politics and politicians, but ironically ended up enthusing voters to turn up at the booths in unprecedented numbers.

So what is the larger message of the elections? If the Congress’s rout in this round is clear, so is the fact that the national mood has strongly turned against the party which won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and 2009.

Not only this, the Congress’s performance in the four States is its worst since 1993, suggesting a convergence of local- and national-level voter disenchantment with the party. What is not so clear is this: If the Congress has lost, will the national verdict go the way of the National Democratic Alliance in

2014? Secondly, how much of the BJP’s Assembly victories can be attributed to Narendra Modi, who campaigned intensively in the four States, addressing rallies over and above what was scheduled for him by the BJP? Indeed, the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee was beseeched by party candidates with requests to somehow squeeze in time for a rally in their own constituencies. So convinced was the BJP itself of the grand Modi-effect that it had him address a rally in Delhi in the vicinity of the Red Fort as a signal of his impending ascent to power.

As it turned out, the Congress retained the Chandni Chowk seat where the Red Fort is located, and in other States too there was little evidence to make a positive link between Mr. Modi’s appearances and the BJP’s victories.

The BJP’s triumph stands diminished by the neck-and-neck fight it has had with its immediate rivals in Delhi and Chhattisgarh. The fight was so close in both States that the final verdict could have been two States won and two lost. In Delhi, the AAP snapped at the BJP’s heels, and in Chhattisgarh the verdict see-sawed until late evening between the BJP and the Congress. Secondly, Sunday’s verdict does not allow easy extrapolation to 2014. The history of elections in the four States shows no direct correlation can be drawn between victory in these elections and a similar triumph in the general election that will follow.

For instance, in 1998, when Madhya Pradesh remained undivided, the Congress won 3-0 against the BJP which at the time headed the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. In the 1999 general elections, the NDA won a second term. In 2003, the BJP clinched a 3-1 victory against the Congress which went on to form a government at the Centre in 2004. In 2008, the Congress and the BJP won two States each but it was the Congress which pulled off a second national victory in 2009.

The difference if any between earlier elections and now is this: The Congress today has the disadvantage of a nearly 10-year incumbency. The situation has been made worse by rampant corruption, runaway inflation and policy paralysis adversely impacting the regime’s previous big achievements — on the economic growth front and in the social welfare sector. The absence of clarity on its prime ministerial candidate would seem to have only added to the public perception of the party as corrupt beyond redemption and shooting in the dark when clear, coherent action was needed.

The results, while anticipated, have clearly shaken up the Congress. On Sunday, Congress President Sonia Gandhi made one of her rare appearances at the AICC headquarters after the debacle. Emphasising the need for “serious introspection”, she said — in response to a question — that the party would announce its prime-ministerial candidate at an “opportune moment”. And party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who has long spoken of the urgent need to reform the functioning of what is now a moribund party, acknowledged that politics had changed, and promised to “move it to a place where the man on the street would have a voice.”

If a suitably chastened Congress leadership accepted that it had a lesson to learn from the AAP, the BJP while triumphant on the outside seemed less sure of what awaited it in 2014.

For, if the AAP has succeeded in Delhi, the regional parties could hold the cards in the States.

(emails: smita.g@thehindu.co.in, vidya.s@thehindu.co.in)

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