These were elections where the sub-text was more important than the stated purpose. The primary purpose of the polls in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan was to elect state governments. But their real significance lay in what they told us about the national mood.
The TV channels referred to Sunday, when the results came in, as the day of the semi-final.
They meant that this was a forerunner of the battle to come, between the BJP and the Congress for control of India. The big question was simple enough: is there a Modi wave?
In the end, that question was never satisfactorily answered. But several new answers to questions that nobody had even asked emerged. And as the import of the results sunk in, there was a sense that perhaps the time-honoured rules of Indian politics were finally changing.
I was part of a TV panel on results day and the most amusing element of the morning’s proceedings was the behaviour of Congress spokespeople.
One by one, like an army of well-trained parrots, they turned up to repeat the same mantra: “There is no Modi wave. And the results are not Rahulji’s fault.” But it was hard for anyone to deny that Narendra Modi had made a difference. The Congress had expected to do badly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. But this badly?
To find parallels for the magnitude of the Congress defeat, you need to go back to 1977. Rarely in recent history has the Congress sunk to such lows in north India. Does the BJP’s enhanced popularity reflect a Modi effect?
I would argue that it does. To claim, as the Congress says, that Modi made no difference, you have to find an alternative explanation for the scale of the BJP victory.
To say that Shivraj Singh Chouhan is popular or that Ashok Gehlot was ill for part of the campaign is not good enough. And as far as I can see, the Congress has no other explanations.
On the other hand, it is hard to find evidence of an all-India Modi wave in these results. If Modi is so popular in north India, then how does the BJP explain the neck-and-neck battle in Chhattisgarh, where margins were razor thin?
And what about Delhi, where Modi campaigned extensively and where his was the face on the posters? (The chief ministerial candidate, Dr Harsh Vardhan, only managed a postage stamp sized photo on publicity material.)
So, the semi-final yielded no clear result. Modi does make a difference but it is still not clear just how great his impact is.
What is clear, however, is how much trouble the Congress is in. The recurring theme of the elections was anti-Congressism. It is possible, as Congressmen like to claim, that the unpopularity of their party is a reflection of dissatisfaction with the Manmohan Singh government.
And certainly, such issues as inflation and law and order seemed to weigh heavily on voters’ minds. But the results indicated a deeper disillusionment. There is a real sense in which the Congress has failed to connect with voters, let alone enthuse them.
Rahul and Sonia Gandhi seemed to concede this when they appeared at a post-result media conference. Both promised that they would make significant changes before the parliamentary elections. I don’t doubt their sincerity — after all, it is the Congress’ survival that is at stake — but I am not sure that they know what changes are required.
The Congress’ problem is that it has got so used to power over the last decade that it has lost its ability to sense what the electorate is thinking.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Delhi. Judging by preliminary voting figures released by the Election Commission, the BJP may have won more seats in Delhi but its share of the popular vote did not go up.
In fact, there is a possibility that it actually went down. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won almost its entire vote share thanks to a large-scale migration of the Congress vote.
The BJP vote-bank held firm but, according to some estimates, seven out of 10 Congress voters deserted the party to vote for Arvind Kejriwal and his associates.
The AAP’s success represents a greater threat to the Congress than any Modi effect. If Kejriwal and his colleagues do manage to put up candidates all across India in the parliamentary elections, then the AAP may not necessarily win many seats.
But if these trends hold, then AAP candidates will attract a significant chunk of the Congress vote.
Once that happens — and assuming the BJP vote-bank holds steady as it did in Delhi — then our first-past-the-post electoral system will ensure that the BJP romps home in many three-cornered contests where AAP candidates eat into the Congress vote.
And what of the AAP itself? Enough has been said about its role as a game-changer. And certainly, it is hard to underestimate its achievement.
Never before in Indian history has an eight-month old party without a charismatic leader (such as NTR, when the TDP was launched) or a regional agenda made such a strong showing in any election.
And never before has any party broken all the old rules about election funding and candidate selection.
But one aspect of the AAP phenomenon has not been sufficiently recognised. When Anna Hazare launched the movement that eventually led to the creation of the AAP, he was openly sneering about Indian elections.
He dismissed voters as being swayed by sops, bribes, and liquor. Were he to stand for election himself, he said, he would lose his deposit because that was the nature of Indian democracy.
The stunning success of the AAP is the most effective rebuttal yet of Anna Hazare’s stand. It shows that we underestimate the Indian voter and needlessly run down our democracy. If committed individuals are prepared to fight for their principles, then Indian democracy will reward them.
So, the real winner of this semi-final was a candidate nobody had even considered: the Indian voter and the democracy he represents.
The views expressed by the author are personal