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Congressís secular nationalist narrative has lost its vigour. Internal elections must be brought back even if they oust its first family.
However one wishes to cut the statistical cloth, the recent state elections have delivered a resounding defeat to the Congress party. Of course, there are other issues that have emerged, too: whether the Aam Aadmi Party has the potential to extend its reach beyond Delhi and the extraordinary implications that might have for the nationís politics; how Narendra Modiís charisma was unable to turn anti-incumbency into a BJP win in Delhi and why the margin of BJP victory was so narrow in Chhattisgarh; and, finally, why the BSP got nearly wiped out in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in each of which it had established a promising foothold.
There are at least two large and noteworthy conclusions. First, India has yet again watched a remarkable festival of democracy. Turnouts rose, a new party emerged, the Maoists were unable to disrupt elections in Chhattisgarh, and no losing party questioned the integrity of the verdict, as was customary in India in the 1980s. For all its flaws, Indiaís democracy is by now deeply institutionalised. There are legitimate questions about how to improve the quality of Indian democracy, but there is no threat to the existence of democracy per se, a historically unique phenomenon at a low level of national income.
But the bigger conclusion, from an immediate perspective, is the abysmal performance of the Congress. For the party, it can hardly be a consolation that relative to 2008, its vote share went up in MP and Chhattisgarh (and it won Mizoram). The more politically salient point is that in MP and Chhattisgarh, where the BJP has been ruling, it could not create an anti-incumbency wave, whereas its own incumbents in Delhi and Rajasthan were virtually decimated.
Until post-poll survey data prove otherwise, it is hard to read the results as a reflection of state-level realities alone. Previous surveys have demonstrated that voters think of both the state and Centre while voting in state elections. These voters have undoubtedly passed a verdict ó substantially if not wholly ó on the Congress-dominated UPA in Delhi. Since, with the partial exception of Maharashtra, the Congress is struggling in all large states of India ó Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu ó the Congress must now be rated as an underdog in the 2014