It is always contentious and somewhat risky to draw exact conclusions about the national mood from the results of state elections, especially when you pause to consider that the previous verdicts in these very states — Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — in both 2003 and 2008 did not create a predictable prelude for what was to follow at the Centre.
In 2003, the BJP was ahead in the race to power by 3-1; in 2008 both parties drew an even score of 2-2, yet the UPA was able to do better in the Lok Sabha.
The voter can be staggeringly clear-minded in how she distinguishes between ‘local’ and national political choices.
An auto-rickshaw driver I met canvassing for Arvind Kejriwal in the heart of Old Delhi, the trademark Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ‘topi’ proudly displayed as he introduced us to other volunteers, was not coy about revealing that if his broom was sweeping out the old in 2013, in a few months from now it would bring in the new.
In 2014, he said, he would vote for Narendra Modi.
Though the BJP has jumped into the gladiatorial pit with a declared leader and despite the scales of victory being tilted in its favour it’s hesitant in labelling the outcome as a direct referendum on Modi’s popularity, keenly aware of these traditional distinctions in voting patterns.
Even Harsh Vardhan — the understated chief ministerial contender for Delhi, whose pictures were dwarfed by the towering image of his party’s prime ministerial candidate in full-page newspaper advertisements — was unusually emphatic in declaring that no election was about just one individual.
Yet, there is no doubt that this is an inflection point in India’s political history. For a combination of reasons this time what happens in the states will have an inescapable national impact.
To start with, there is a palpable leadership vacuum in the country that has created a restive electoral appetite for an assertive, even aggressive, style of politics.
Never before has a government been so strangely adamant about its silence; never before have a party’s communication crevices been filled so effectively by a voluble, vociferous opponent.
Even when Modi is somewhat bombastic in his articulation and even though he sometimes gets his facts wrong, the fact that he speaks and then the Congress reacts — and never the other way around — is an illustration of the power dynamics at play.
There’s also no over-stating the fact that these assembly elections took place in the backdrop of widespread discontent with the UPA’s second term in office. While high-voter turnouts can no longer be simplistically linked to election outcomes, if the polls are correct and you aggregate their findings, it throws up a glaring conclusion.
While the voter turnouts have been high across all four states, the Congress chief ministers are bearing the brunt of anti-incumbency, doubled by the anger against the government at the Centre and the BJP chief ministers remain beneficiaries of a pro-incumbency vote.
In other words, even the improved infrastructure in city-states like Delhi or the slew of welfare schemes in Rajasthan have failed to stem the larger anti-Congress sentiment that seems to be building nationally.
The Congress has tied itself into knots over whether there is a Modi effect or not in the assembly polls. Keen to argue that there isn’t one, it has simultaneously missed the corollary.
If it doesn’t want the BJP to link its victories to a national undercurrent for Modi, it can hardly claim any surprise wins, should they come its way, had something to do with Rahul Gandhi.
On the contrary, while no one in the party may have the gumption to raise it vocally, mute murmurs about the Congress vice president’s effectiveness in leading the campaign for 2014 can already be heard.
While many have pointed to the thinning crowds at the Delhi rally where Sheila Dikshit had to implore the attendees to not leave before listening to Rahul, what’s even more befuddling has been her solo, almost lonely campaign in Delhi since then and his near invisibility.
Contrast this with the high-powered pantheon of the BJP establishment that came out to bat for Harsh Vardhan and you have to wonder what the Congress was thinking.
Through the campaign we were told that Rahul Gandhi was actively involved in micro-decisions of ticket distribution and electoral strategy. In that case it’s hardly possible to disassociate him from defeat (or victory).
For Modi too, despite disclaimers by his party, the stakes are high. A sweep of these four states (setting aside Mizoram for the moment) would only add momentum to his national campaign.
But if Delhi, for example, were to throw up a defeat for Dikshit but an unclear verdict for the BJP, with the debutant Aam Aadmi Party grabbing just enough seats to make the difference between a clear win and an hung assembly, questions will inevitably be hurled at the BJP narrative of a Modi ‘wave’.
For one, it would mean that in states where the contest is not just between the Congress and the BJP, the anti-UPA mood doesn’t always translate into a neat endorsement for the principal opposition party.
The victories in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh may then be seen as wins delivered by successful regional leaders, than the imprint of the Modi factor.
The X-factor in these elections, also on trial especially in Delhi, is the impact of the urban vote. Estimates suggest there are now over 180-200 constituencies with high urbanisation.
Ironically, the Congress that saw a reported 4% increase in its urban vote share in 2009 has since become the one party that treats the middle class with disdain.
Predictions are for astrologers, but if rights-based schemes are no longer guaranteeing the rural vote and the urban vote is getting alienated, it is only bad news ahead for the Congress.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal