If elections are won or lost on public sentiment, then the bell is tolling for the Congress with its collapse in four state Assembly polls.
Party spokespersons may keep repeating that there is no correlation between the elections to the state Assemblies, and how people vote in parliamentary elections. However, the morale of Congress workers was summed up by a senior Congress leader who gloomily predicted that by the Lok Sabha elections, the anti-Congress sentiment in the country might reach the proportions of Cyclone Phailin.
The first consequence of the state Assembly election results will be a crisis of leadership in the Congress. It is quite clear now that Rahul Gandhi has not acquired the ability shown by his mother in the past, to lead his party to victory. But there is hardly anyone who can take his place.
It is too late in the day to bring his sister Priyanka Gandhi forward. Manmohan Singh stands discredited in the public eye. Sheila Dikshit would have been a contender at the national level had she won Delhi for the fourth time. A K Antony and Sushil Kumar Shinde have no charisma to speak of. P Chidambaram would have the advantage of being from the south where Narendra Modi has little purchase and would have the backing of the corporate sector looking for economic revival. But he has had difficulty winning his own constituency. That leaves only Sonia Gandhi and given her health, she may not be up to the hectic campaigning that the general elections of 2014 would demand.
Not much should be read into Sonia Gandhi saying that the party would name its prime ministerial candidate at an appropriate time - that time could come after the Lok Sabha polls or the need to do so may not arise at all.
A new leader would also have to change the style and content of leadership, and learn to be responsive to peoples' needs. The Congress today shows no capacity to do either. The same Congressman who saw hostile public sentiment reaching cyclonic proportions, lamented, "We are not a party but a property. A party has leaders; a property has only dealers. All the dealers are looking to their own benefit in the Congress. There is no public purpose left."
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), these elections have transformed the public perception of Narendra Modi. It is no point claiming that the "Modi wave" was only evident in one state or two. Modi's campaigning did not damage the BJP in any state.
The BJP would not have done as well as it did in Rajasthan but for Modi consolidating the anti-Congress votes and polarising it in favour of the BJP. Realising that the party needs him, the party's chief ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje personally went to invite him to campaign in Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, too, he added to the popular support of the incumbent chief ministers. And it is possible that but for his campaigning the BJP may not have got the 31 Assembly seats in Delhi.
Commentators who argue that the rise of a Shivraj Singh Chouhan and a Raman Singh will not be good for Modi are clutching at straws. Modi's brand of politics is cut from the same ideological cloth as those who are sometimes projected as contenders within the BJP. Now that Modi has given the party a political momentum, these leaders will build on that. Besides, Chouhan and Singh are yet to arrive on the national race track, while Modi is already up and running.
Calculations that cite the precedent of 2004 where the Congress swept parliamentary elections despite losing Assembly elections in some North Indian states and Gujarat may not work now. Even in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP may now dramatically improve its tally if the anti-Congress sentiment continues to grow. Modi will start getting a toehold even in the south since regional leaders see an advantage in forming an alliance with the BJP. In Karnataka, B S Yeddyurappa will most certainly be back in the BJP's fold as an ally.
In the rest of the southern states, where there are multi-cornered contests, regional satraps will be the beneficiaries of the decline of the Congress. Even Muslims who voted for the Congress will now gravitate towards other secular alternatives and regional leaders.
As for the most dramatic debutant of the state Assembly elections - the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its fabulous performance in Delhi will pose serious challenges to its future. The major challenge now is to build a national level organisation. AAP remains a loosely-knit group of people with different ideological inclinations, and merely asserting its presence in 17 states and 300 districts is not going to be enough to put together a coherent organisation.
In retrospect, AAP seemed tailor-made for Delhi. It may find it difficult to replicate its runaway performance in the other metros where voters are not as far removed from their regional, ethnic and caste roots as in the national capital. Even in a city such as Mumbai that saw major Lokpal protests, AAP would have to confront locally-rooted parties such as the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the BJP, the Nationalist Congress Party. The anti-corporate agenda of AAP may also limit its appeal in significant sections of the electorate.
The vote for AAP is indeed a vote for alternative politics. However, it will have to choose between concentrating on certain constituencies or spreading itself too thin as the third alternative before a national level organisation has been put in place. If it is pushed into another election in Delhi because of the BJP's refusal to lay claim to form a government, then who knows what its future might be even in Delhi.
Lastly, Arvind Kejriwal, the irreverent youthful leader of AAP, has the potential to emerge as an alternative to Modi, whose politics raises serious problems for many. Up to now the anti-Modi space was occupied by the Congress, now there is a new claimant for it.
The author is a journalist based in Delhi