The mid-term reality check brings good news, and a question for the ruling UPA. The good news is that nearly three years into its term, the ruling coalition still enjoys popular approval. In fact it is placed better than it was in 2004. The question is: has the UPA already peaked? Is this a moment of pause before incumbency disadvantage sets in?
If Lok Sabha elections had been held in the second week of January, the ruling coalition would have managed to shed its dependence on the Left and secured a clear majority with around 300 seats, up from the 222 it won in 2004. The NDA would have won 115 seats, down from the 189 it won in 2004.
The latest round of the Hindustan Times-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has more cheerful news for the Congress. Sonia Gandhi continues to be the most popular leader of the country as none of the BJP leaders is able to fill the space vacated by AB Vajpayee.
People want to see Sonia as the PM, but are satisfied with Manmohan Singh's performance and do not want someone else to replace him. Even BJP voters agree that the BJP has grown weaker since 2004.
Yet there is something that should begin to worry the ruling coalition. The popularity surge for the UPA appears to have hit a plateau. The previous two rounds of this six monthly barometer had shown an upward trend for the Congress and its allies. The stable picture at the national level hides many upheavals at the state level.
The logic of incumbency has started working against the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, but not in Punjab and Uttaranchal that go to polls next month. The UPA is sitting pretty in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra where it has major allies.
The BJP's incumbency record is much worse. It is on a downslide in all the states that it rules. The saving grace for the NDA is that the governments led by the BJP's partners are doing well. Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar occupy the first and the second spot in the popularity rating of all chief ministers and even HD Kumaraswamy has picked up after a disastrous start.
Will the Congress find a way to outwit the NDA in these states? Will it make the most of its current popularity and go for a mid-term election late this year? Or will it complete its full term and take the risk of losing the advantage that it has now? Congress strategists will have to worry about this in the months to come.
Kumar and Yadav are social scientists working with the CSDS, Delhi. Karandikar is with Cranes Software International Limited.